Opens Fri., June 21 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 120 minutes.
The first film in Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy (all recently seen during SIFF), Paradise: Love flips the usual script of sex tourism. Like Charlotte Rampling’s character in Heading South, the Austrian Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) travels to a sunny beach in the Third World, where young, poor, brown-skinned gigolos are available for pennies. Unlike Rampling, however, Tiesel is not a tall, striking, in-command woman of a certain age. Her Teresa is a dumpy 50-year-old special-ed teacher, no husband in sight, with a chubby, resentful teen daughter she sends to a fat camp during her Kenyan vacation. (This becomes Paradise: Hope; Teresa’s Catholic-fanatic sister is the subject of Paradise: Faith.) When Teresa strips naked, and there is a lot of frontal nudity here, she sadly tells a rent boy of her sagging flesh, “Everything goes down.”
Down indeed. Having started in documentaries, then moved to coldly clinical features (Dog Days, Import/Export), Seidl has no use for cheerful, uplifting cinema. Teresa arrives at the Mombasa resort as a naif. “In Africa, love is forever,” she tells her female travel companions. “They accept you for who you are.” And who are these corpulent white women? ATMs for the well-muscled local hustlers. And after sex comes the sob story. My sister’s kid needs money for an operation, says one guy. “There is no Medicare?” Teresa asks incredulously, then reaches for her wallet. She’s a little bit racist (“They all look the same”), but also sad, desperate, and lonely. Back in Austria, a fat, middle-aged woman has no power over men. In Kenya, she’s as powerful as her fat purse.
Teresa initially buys into the transactional fantasy romance offered by the dreadlocked Munga (Peter Kazungu, an actual beach hustler), but she gradually wises up. There are moments of grace, as when she dozes like Venus beneath purple mosquito netting, but Seidl never grants her much respect. Often framed from behind, Teresa resolutely waddles along the beach in her bikini. She’s not exactly an evil neocolonial predator, since the men are getting exactly what they want—money, though it’s never enough. They’ll never be able to fly back to Fortress Europe with Teresa. Still, she’s not the villain of the piece. Seidl co-wrote the entire Paradise trilogy with his wife, Veronika Franz, and Teresa is given a kind of bruised dignity. To her Austrian cohort, she says she wants to be seen “as a person, and not just a body.” All women can relate to that—and maybe some men, no matter who’s paying.