This withering essay on sex tourism and the cyclical nature of class exploitation is one of 2012's most impressive (if gruelling) pieces of filmmaking.
Paradise: Love opens with a shot of a group of disabled people silently sat in static dodgems. A bell rings, and as they start up, they begin to scream and wail, haphazardly ramming each other without a care of who they're hitting and how hard. This, people, is a distillation of humanity through the sardonically pessimistic eyes of Austia’s Ulrich Seidl.
Seidl, who was in the Cannes competition in 2007 with his similarly close-to-the-bone Import/Export, is not so much a director who likes to prod open wounds as one who likes to tear at them with a claw hammer. Paunchy, rosy-cheeked hausfrau, Teresa (Maria Hofstätter, offering the very definition of a fearless performance which could and should be in with a shot of a prize), heads to Kenya to laze in the sun with her friends, drink cocktails and hopefully become the "sweet mama" to one of the abundant supply of male escorts in the area. All she wants is someone to love her. Simple.
From the off, the devious game that Seidl plays is who’s exploiting who? as Teresa embarks upon her inexorable sexual odyssey as something of a lovable naif, then via various foul humiliations and expertly mounted emotional con jobs, gradually learns by her mistakes and starts to give as good as he gets. As scenes mount up, the film gets increasingly hard to watch, and as the characters exploit one another, you wonder how much Seidl is doing the same with his very game ensemble of actors.
If this sounds like some kind of racist OAP revenge movie, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Seidl forces us to stare prejudice and venality directly in the eye (as Teresa constantly demands of her love interests during foreplay) and know that while human beings walk this Earth, it will never go away.
Some of the visual metaphors are extremely blunt – ravenous crocodiles at feeding time, a beach segregated by race and class – but they all intricately executed. Many of the visual set-ups and cutaway tableaux have an attractive, painterly feel to them, referencing, among others, Lucian Freud to Beryl Cook. But this beauty, this 'paradise' is superficial at very best.