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Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, 2012)

August 26, 2012

Colder than his fellow citizen Haneke, formal as Greenaway, relentless like Herzog, Ulrich Seidl is one of the most interesting contemporary filmmakers. After exploring/exploiting the thin line between documentary and fiction, creating caustic works like Tierische Liebe, Good News and Models, Seidl directed his first feature film in 2001, Hundstage, followed in 2007 by Import/Export. Paradies should have been a massive 5 hours and a half film, on which Seidl worked for over 4 years and shot 80 hours and more of material. Seidl realized that the three intertwined stories worked better as a standalone, so the film is now a trilogy, each film about a woman, each one searching for a way to fulfill her dreams and longings. Liebe (Love), about Theresa, and her sex holiday in Kenya, Glaube (Faith), about Anna Maria, Theresa’s sister, and her catholic mission of conversion in Vienna, and  Hoffnung (Hope), about Theresa’s daughter, Melanie, and her vacation at a diet camp for adolescents.

Paradies: Liebe, the first chapter presented at Cannes 2012, follows the trademark style of Seidl’s previous works, but it still maintains a rare freshness. Set on the beaches of Kenya, we voyeuristically follow Theresa, and her search for a male companion, a “beach boy”, among the natives, after years of disappointments in her love life. She’s not the only one, of course. They’re called “sugar mamas”, white middle-aged women from all over the world, each one trying to get a piece of heaven.

Margarete Tiesel, who portrays Theresa, is far away from the western standards of beauty: an overweight women in her fifties. In the mainstream circuit, overweight people are often used as ludicrous gimmick, or just seen as something to loathe. But here we just see a woman being what she is. Seidl doesn’t have a problem in showing her body to us. Real sex scenes that almost mirrors the ones of Reygada’s Batalla en el Cielo, are numerous. Theresa’s skin is marked by tan lines, and the contrast between the pale zones and the lobster red one create a sort of tragic ridiculousness, her desperate attempt to gain some satisfaction from the young boys who are only interested in her money. Her naivety seems more like a façade, but still she wanders, committing the same mistakes over and over.

But there’s no judgement in Seidl’s eye,  it’s just that the camera spares nobody. We see masses of pale, flaccid skin, stranded on the beach like dying whales (a rembrance of Hundstage) trying to get a tan, while groups of Kenyans watch right into the camera (Seidl’s tableaux are his trademark since his first documentary), separated from the tourists by ropes, and armed soldiers that patrols the entire beach. Everything can be bought in Kenya. Not that this doesn’t happen in the rest of the world. But in the film, there’s no hypocrisy about it, except for the prudery of Theresa, being her first time. Her friends are already inside the mechanism, and they see no real problem in renting a young boy and giving him as a gift to Theresa, pointing out that “he’s all yours, from head to cock”. One of the longest sequence in the movie, the four women abuse in every way of the young beach boy, still he keeps smiling, he knows the rules. A squalid show indeed, but I remember people laughing during this scene. Actually, there were many laughs throughout the entire movie, I still don’t know if they were true laughs, or just embarrassed ones. Not that Seidl, doesn’t insert elements of comedy. Probably, the absence of a true point of view, due to Seidl impartiality to the events portrayed on screen (not to be confounded with indifference) led each viewer to feel the movie’s atmosphere as he likes. Still, I firmly believe that if the scene portrayed four obese middle-aged white men abusing a young black girl, nobody would have laughed. I guess that’s one of the many strengths of Seidl’s way of making movies: the ability to show the true nature of both his characters and his viewers.

Seidl starts from an accurate script, that defines the situation and the location, but no dialogues are writer. The scene comes alive only when the actors, both professional and non, act the situation, identifying with the situation, portraying their true emotions to the scene. Seidl and Margarete Tiesel spent an entire year in Kenya only to find the right actors among the natives, the ones that really connected with her and that were able to appear authentic on camera. Seidl’s film crew has almost remained the same from his first work, from the casting director to the camera operator, and that’s one of the reasons why he is one of the few that have successfully maintained his style without making it trite but instead evolving in new directions. The entire film is shot on location, and no additional music was used, other than the diegetic one. Along with one of the best openings I’ve ever seen, every shot is perfectly organized in geometrical composition (apart from the hand held shots that follows Theresa through the city). The entire movie is permeated by a brutal atmosphere: a world where everybody struggles to survive, someone physically, someone psychologically. A reality that is not far from ours.

(All the images were taken from the press kit.)

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