So, it’s only taken several years for me to backtrack and watch the first installment of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Love. While the order seems almost immaterial, Love does set the whole thing up by putting all the women the series features in one place and sending them on their journies.
Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is off on a trip to Africa for her 50th birthday. There, she plans to lounge on the beach with other Austrian women her age, a few of whom have been there before and can show her the ropes. Specifically, how to purchase her own local lover. Young men in the area accept cash and gifts to be these women’s companions, all the while professing their love, selling a thin illusion that the women aren’t necessarily buying, it just comes with the package. Teresa’s friends giggle over the boys’ naïveté and joke about them in German so they can’t understand what they are saying. Teresa isn’t sure about the whole thing at first, she wants to be treated a certain way, but pretty soon she goes from kidding herself about the affection she receives to being just one of the gals.
Seidl applies a sharp satirical edge to the ugly tourists here. The ladies don’t mask their true feelings, particularly with the language barrier to hide behind. They treat resort staff like performing animals, and the boys they hire like property. Which is easy enough to get agry about, but Seidl’s camera is wide enough to look at both sides, making Paradise: Love a more intriguing puzzler than the simple premise might suggest. The real trick of this movie is how often it flips the audience’s allegiances. While first we judge Teresa, as we eventually see her nervous bedroom habits, we begin to feel sorry for her. Tiesel portrays Teresa’s longing with quiet empathy. She could really use the love that the young men claim. We also see the two-way flow of bartering here, as her second relationship with a quiet, calming fellow named Munga (Peter Kazungu) turns from nights spent in bed to days spent doling out charity to Munga’s family, all of whom demand more than Teresa is able to give--and even insulting her from behind their own language barrier. While she is indulging in ghetto tourism, he is taking full advantage of her loneliness and her motherly instincts. (Initial love scenes with each man she couples with all turn into tutelage rather than passion.)
Of course, Teresa doesn’t react well to discovering Munga’s con, and so she goes back to trawling the beaches for a new hire. There’s a sad willingness on her part to believe each man will treat her better than the last, that he is sincere because he says so, to a degree that the hustlers are almost in sync with one another, refining the sales pitch with each new encounter. It’s a weird cycle, because for a bit we believe, too. Maybe it will be better. Maybe she’ll be better. But no, Teresa’s failures don’t improve her failings; she is no kinder to the others she meets. The whole thing culminates in her birthday party, where the women literally purchase a man for a night of fun and games, ridiculing and humiliating him. All the while, he pretends to like it, but other parts of his body betray that smile on his face as a forced lie.
As with all the Paradise films, one is left to ponder what exactly Seidl is saying about love. His laid-back presentation offers no real editorializing, and though he does show some sympathy for Teresa, his narrative does not take a side. Is his view of human relationships so cynical that he sees love as a series of transactions rather than a genuine connector? Or is the point here that there is a greater divide in the world than we care to admit, that different races and nations, as it stands, can’t possibly come together on equal footing?
Probably a little of all that. In Teresa’s individual case, she’s definitely not getting what she wants, but as the song goes, she sometimes gets what she needs. And perhaps that’s the underlying factor of all the films, that these big concepts like love and hope and faith are not as easily contained as we’d like, but maybe if we got honest with ourselves, we’d get just enough to get by.
Screencaps taken from Christopher McQuain's DVDTalk review of Paradise: Love.