The Austrian writer and director Ulrich Seidl is one of a number of European filmmakers for whom sadism is a tool of ethical and political enlightenment. Like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, Seidl sets out to expose the bad faith and complacency of the liberal West, and to rub viewers’ noses in their own complicity with the exploitative cruelty of the current world order.
His new film, “Paradise: Love” (the first installation in a trilogy that will open in the United States in the coming months), is a tour de force of meticulous cruelty, a comic melodrama that elicits laughter and empathy, then replaces those responses with squirming discomfort.
An intimate look into the global phenomenon of sex tourism, it subjects both its characters and its audience to a series of humiliations. Seidl shows us human bodies stripped of clothes and dignity, then shames us for looking.
Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), a caretaker of mentally disabled adults in Vienna, is the central focus of compassion and revulsion. The single mother of a sullen teenage daughter, Teresa treats herself to a birthday trip to a resort on the coast of Kenya.
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It is not altogether clear that sex with African men was part of her vacation plans, but in any case a fellow tourist quickly initiates her into a circle of European “sugar mamas.”
Seidl’s blunt, unsparing depiction of embarrassment and sexual failure is a sign of what is to come as Teresa starts to get the hang of the sugar-mama game, entering into a relationship with a young man named Munga (Peter Kazungu).
But sex, commerce and emotion are not so easily kept apart, and in the course of her vacation Teresa becomes both more cynical and more vulnerable.
In “Paradise: Love,” Seidl looks at bodies with a gaze intent on stripping away their dignity. The question is whether, in depicting degradation, he is also enacting it. The answer is right in front of your eyes.