Love is all you need
Some titles are just destined to be used ironically, and Paradise: Love is their king. Particularly being from Austria, a country with a fetish for cinematic misery. And particularly, I understand, from the mind of director Ulrich Seidl, who I gather (I have not previously seen his work) is kind of like a version of Michael Haneke without the formal playfulness to leaven his depictions of awful people suffering.
Sure enough, the film's bitter, travesty of the qualities presented in its title is made clear early on and repeated vigorously throughout. Paradise is here played by a beach resort in sub-Saharan Africa, where middle-aged European women and young African men engage in a corroded kind of pas de deux over sex and money, and love refers to the way that one particular woman, Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), is able to convince herself that the various gigolos she encounters during her vacation care about her on any kind of vaguely emotional level, and that she cares about them in the same way.
That's basically it, as far as narrative content goes: an early scene back in Austria sets up Teresa's vacation while introducing us to her sister (Maria Hofstätter) and teenage daughter (Melanie Lenz) , the subjects of the other other two legs of Seidl's Paradise trilogy, Faith and Hope. Everything else is a series of largely repetitive scenes of Teresa navigating the treacherous emotional terrain of a sex tourism trip that she might very well have misunderstood until she got there - both the screenplay (by Seidl and Veronika Franz) and Tiesel's immaculately subtle performance leave it very much up for debate how much Teresa actually knows about what's going on and when she knows it. The conflict in this largely anecdotal story, barely even plotty enough to call itself "episodic", is not between Teresa and anyone else, but within Teresa: to what degree is she actually looking for love in the strangest of places, and to what degree is this just her elaborate game of self-deception that allows her to continue feeling like a moral person in the midst of this whoredom parade?
This is positively aching to be presented in the bleakest possible way, the sort of film that we endure rather than watch. To its credit, Love is not nearly as punishing as it could be, for it largely stays away from being particularly cruel to Teresa. She suffers no humiliations to speak of, though it could be easily argued that the grossly transfixed detail with which Seidl and cinematographers Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler depict Tiesel's sagging and overweight naked body is in and of itself all the humiliation the film needs (this is not a movie with a particularly forgiving or positive attitude towards the sexual desires of aging women). There's no punishment for her transgression of lying to herself and others about her emotional and sexual needs, except that she ends up unfulfilled in both of them.
It shouldn't be assumed that since Love keeps Tiesel from the abuse that perhaps Haneke or definitely Lars von Trier would have heaped on her, it's somehow a more pleasant movie than the grubbiest of Euro-art "everything sucks and people most of all" pictures. Love presents a singularly black portrait of how people engage with each other, using its blandly documentarylike long-takes and wide shots to watch its characters like zoo animals. The comparison is not flattering to the animals. In Love, human behavior reduces basically and always to one point: tell me what lie I should use to get what I want out of you. It's impossible to reduce it to simple parable of disgusting Europeans literally fucking over poor Africans, because the Africans are just as predatory and merciless as the other side. Nobody seems honorable or worthy in this scenario, because every one is actively and consciously reducing everyone else to cogs in a game of humanity-as-economics, and Teresa is the worst of all since she seems to believe - at the very least, she broadcasts it to everyone else - that by framing her behavior in this system as part of an emotional journey and desire for connection, she excuses herself from the nonstop cycle of mutual exploitation.
"Dear God, then why bother?" is a very legitimate question here. Because the issues are real, and under-explored in the movies, or at least under-explored with such non-sensationalist intellectualism, is one answer. Because Tiesel gives one of the year's great performances in creating a woman of murky inner depths, as murky to her as to anybody watching the film, is another. But in honesty, Paradise: Love is a film that I'm dubious enough on for myself that I can't really claim that it's necessary or rewarding cinema. It's a mean movie in some unfortunate ways: from the very first shot of people with Down syndrome being battered about in bumper cars at the attraction Teresa runs, Seidl shows a disreputable fascination with weird body shapes that only worsens once the panoply of nude scenes focused on Tiesel's conventionally unattractive body starts up. I wouldn't say it's pedantic and moralising in the way that his countryman Haneke can easily become in his worst moments, but the film feels at times like it's standing in judgment, even when it's not really standing in judgment of anything in particular.
At any rate, it's a real sock in the gut, though I think if Seidl's impulse to tell the Paradise films in one two-hour omnibus rather than as three separate features had held steady, it would lose none of its impact and gained some sense of focus. In its current state, it's a bit redundant, and Tiesel's fluid performance and our shifting sense of who her character is only carries it so far. But there are moments in the film, both character-based and not - there are long shots where Siedel seems to grow weary of sufferingy and instead allows himself a chance to simply watch human beings in the act of getting by with life - that linger on in the mind as sharp pieces of observation that rise above any simple moral argument, and give the film more nuance than just another damn story of depravity. At any rate, it's a film that, once watched, is not readily un-watched, in both good and dismaying ways alike.