PARADISE: LOVE (Ulrich Seidl)
By Robert Koehler
As the first part of a trilogy with the umbrella title of Paradise about three middle-aged sisters on some kind of vacation, Paradise: Love is Ulrich Seidl at his most unexpectedly emotional. A study of one of the sisters, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), being seduced by the idea and then the reality of sexual tourism while on holiday in Kenya, Seidl’s movie attacks less an enchanting paradise than a fascinating paradox: Feminist Colonialism, or, if you wish, Colonialist Feminism. Beginning her getaway as the innocent abroad soaking up the rays, sights and sounds of a resort catering to the tastes and sensibilities of the European tourist (a condition that ideally serves Seidl’s highly developed taste for cool satire), Anna Maria finds herself drawn to the possibilities of abandoning conventional sexual morés and following other women into the same kind of business that Laurent Cantet attempted and failed to dramatize in Heading South: the exchange of female cash for young, black male sex. The desire for The Other—a pal describes the taste of the young Kenyans’ skin as “like coconut”—is played in the early sections for comedy, and then finally, as absurdly impossible. In the course of things, Anna Maria finds herself able to puncture an unspoken barrier, between closely held notions of proper and improper sex, interracial relations, and the sense of what money can buy. In a superbly sustained and staged closing sequence when the corpulent gals try play a contest to see who can get one of the “Negroes” (as the subtitles, presumably written in the year 2012, astonishingly state) to get it up first. The sequence encapsulates Seidl’s challenge to his audience, which is to make sense of women turning men into their playthings and performing as the sexually dominant partner, yet at the same time acknowledging that these women are playing out the age-old roles of European occupier of African space, still colonizing (the tourism business, the sexual tourism business) and maintaining the master-servant relationship of the European colonial period, which Paradise: Love suggests, is not over. Yet the enigmatic, dancerly closing image suggests yet another reading: In a long shot—symmetrical, as always with Seidl—facing the resort’s beach and the ocean, a woman who may be Anna Maria walks in one direction while a group of Kenyan youth approach in the opposite direction, passing in the middle, and doing cartwheels in an act of complete freedom.