(Paradise: Love is now available on DVD through Strand Releasing. It opened theatrically on Friday, April 26, 2013. It world premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and also screened at the 2012 AFI Fest, when this review was first published.)
The film opens with close ups of a group of adults with mental disabilities slamming into each other in bumper cars, supervised by a heavyset, middle aged blond woman standing in front of a painted tropical beach mural. It serves as a sort of overture, introducing in a brutally abstract way the themes of Paradise: Love.
The supervisor is Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a divorcée whose character is sketched in broad strokes as she prepares for a vacation: she’s energetic and typically Germanic (Austrian actually) in the importance she puts on cleanliness and order. Throughout the film, director Ulrich Seidl creates a layer of visual humor with stiff, frontal/symmetrical wide shots—a lack of subtlety that expresses (as the “Paradise” title does) the naiveté of his characters. Landing in Kenya, Teresa gets down to disinfecting surfaces in her seemingly clean hotel room, but soon another side of her emerges. In a key conversation at an outdoor bar, a new friend with a full head of frightening hair extensions gives Teresa an enthusiastic talking-to about the sexual opportunities with local men, as if recommending a good restaurant: “You have to smell their skin. It’s unforgettable.” “Whose skin?” asks Teresa. “The negroes!”
Teresa goes through a kind of second adolescence, at first demurring—“I wouldn’t dare!”—from her friend’s encouragement, but gradually venturing outside the perimeter of the safe zone of the hotel, which the locals aren’t allowed to cross. One of the film’s iconic images is of African men standing in a scattered formation beyond the safety perimeter on the beach, giving Teresa a human slalom to walk through to get to the water. Teresa gradually allows herself to be approached by the men, and (again like a teenager) once she starts to relent she quickly finds herself in bed with one of them.
At this point Seidl and his performers set in motion a fascinating evolution in Teresa’s character: she begins to define what she wants and doesn’t want in an intimate relationship. We don’t know Teresa’s back-story, but her savvy friend seems to speak for all the women at the resort: she shares her experience of going through life doing everything to please a man and now letting all that go and finally doing what she wants. On her first date, Teresa pulls away from a lover’s bed crying “you don’t love me!” Later she drunkenly sets about teaching another local man, very specifically, how and when she likes to be touched and kissed. These bedroom scenes are incredibly raw and intimate, with a wild improvisational flair; Tiesel is fearless about showing her body as well as her character’s insecurities about her weight and her age.
The irony of course is that although Teresa is getting in touch with her real self, the relationships she forms are thinly-veiled prostitution. The local men never ask to be paid, but they have an endless stream of stories about relatives in the hospital who need large amounts of money for operations and medicine. Teresa, maybe naively or maybe subconsciously wanting to keep the fantasy going, forks over the Euros and even seems genuinely concerned for the unfortunate relatives.
Unsurprisingly, by the time Teresa puts the brakes on the outflow of cash, she’s in way too deep emotionally and headed for a crash. Seidl doesn’t specifically intend to make anything as prosaic as a political point, but the power relationship between the European women and the African men becomes coldly explicit. Paradise: Love is on the one hand a fascinating examination of how an innocent’s simple desire to be loved turns to cynicism and lust for power, but Seidl marinates it in a rich context of geopolitics, creating fascinating layers of exploitation and counter-exploitation, shining a harsh spotlight on Teresa’s self-delusion, and showing us how quickly a kind-hearted human being can turn into a monster.
— Paul Sbrizzi