The first of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, each of which depicts a woman at a crucial point in her life, was filmed with a general story outline but no script, as the director wanted to capture the reality of Kenya in the telling of his story. This is Paradise: Love’s biggest strength: The improvised acting, which includes both professionals and non-professionals, molding the details of the story in an absolutely believable way, and Margarethe Tiesel is particularly effective as Teresa, a middle-aged woman who goes on vacation to Kenya as a sex tourist, hoping to be accepted for her beauty. Tiesel shapes her character’s insecurities very precisely, and interactions with prostitutes have a great balance of naivety on her end and a mix of greed and tenderness on theirs. Making it all work is the camerawork of Ed Bachman and Wolfgang Thaler, which relies on long takes and abstains almost completely from close-ups and mixes static shots with steady tracking shots to prevent an overly meditative or entrapping feel. The whole film is thus instilled with a feeling of naturalism, even documentary—a story this simple and straightforward has certainly happened before.
At first, you can barely tell that Teresa is interacting with prostitutes, and the first half of the film can even be mistaken as delightful—it’s not until later that the pure desperation on the part of Teresa begins to sink in. She certainly knows that when she is giving money, it’s not going to what people are telling her, but desperation and the need to feel loved are more than enough for her to delude herself. And Munga (Peter Kazungu), the first prostitute who takes her home, is charming, friendly, and listens to Teresa. Their first interactions can easily trick the viewer into buying the titular irony, as if this vacation really is a stay in paradise, where societal pressures regarding appearance and traditional ideas of what are attractive don’t matter, where they are loved for being unique, regardless of what Western society says. In one scene, Teresa and three of her friends discuss their insecurities regarding weight and age and joke about liposuction, and it’s clear that just being noticed feels like a blessing to them. In another, one woman tells Teresa that she used to always change her appearance to be attractive to her boyfriends, but in Kenya, she doesn’t need to. Here, you can be loved for who you are.
Or, perhaps not. A prolonged, failed orgy is a wake-up call, a disturbing realization that simply running off to another country as a sex tourist won’t leave insecurities behind. After that, when a prostitute won’t go down on her, the realization sinks in even harder. Mere escapism to any location, however different it is, won’t change everything. The reality of the situation—that these are prostitutes, not knights in shining armor—will always find a way to slowly creep into the mind of dreamers. At one point, Munga tells her that, unlike in Europe, in Africa, love is forever. He makes it a convincing lie, but eventually, the truth needs to hit. It’s a somewhat ordinary moral and by the halfway point it’s easy to see where things are going, and so the deliberate pace can work against the film, but the degree of naturalism keeps things convincing and memorable.
Teresa herself is just as memorable, at times repulsive and at times sympathetic. Her comments about the native Kenyans and her predisposition to condescend regarding their physique and language is infuriating, but her naivety, that she actually believes she’s in a relationship even as she is hit up again and again for money—and for some reason keeps believing she might find love with the next prostitute (so long as he disguises his occupation: Teresa flatly rejects one man who is too obvious)—is so pathetic that it goes beyond pity and toward sympathy, largely because of the honesty with which she tells her friends about her insecurity. What this means, essentially, is that everyone is exploiting one another. It’s ugly, even painful to watch, not so much for the explicit nature of the nudity—there’s never fear of anything spiraling out of control—but because of how uncomfortable the situations are.
What this gets at is the film’s biggest treasure, not its narrative subtext but its stylistic signifiers. Seidl opens his film with faces of mentally disabled people on a bumper car ride as Teresa looks on. All the faces are ciphers, but they are also bound to trigger an immediate reaction. Pity, empathy, grotesquery, alienation, helplessness, and many other feelings immediately strike and don’t let off throughout the uncomfortable series of close-ups, as if Seidl is demanding that we examine our own conscious and also work to decode such daring signifiers. For the next (almost) two hours, we see Teresa engage in ugly games of exploitation in the name of self-service but also liberation. Whether that makes the whole thing a provocation or a profound statement on the way we assign feeling and motivation and look for answers is the million dollar question. Perhaps Seidl is asking what distinguishes the way you think of the first faces—unfortunate, helpless, handicapped, “other,” or whatever else—from Teresa. More specifically, he could be toying with signifiers and how their differences code them altogether.
Many of these scenes, particularly the orgy, are so brutal and loaded with gender and racial signifiers that pile on ethical questions. Ask yourself: If this were a bunch of males, or if races were reversed, what would change? Furthermore, just as Seidl almost dares us to look away—out of discomfort, perhaps—from the first faces, he is daring us to look away during the orgy. He does not emphasize the overweight, even obese, nude bodies, but simply lets them exist as they are. Perhaps he exploits the mentally handicapped just as his characters exploit one another, but by lingering equally on both bodies and faces that aren’t traditionally beautiful, Seidl is accepting both. He dares us to look away, but he himself does not. He allows the young, athletic Kenyans—whose physiques are treated with the same obtuse fascination that Seidl treats the tourists’ bodies with—to make the women feel beautiful. He does not look away, and he thus insists there is no shame, just as one should not feel shameful for a mental handicap.
On the other hand, that it only happens that way as part of a transaction shines a light on the injustice. None of these people deserve to be looked down upon; our own morbid fascination with the bodies we see is not any different than Teresa’s fascination with those that she sees. That the failure to find love at the film’s end is tragedy humanizes all bodies. Everyone deserves to find love without exploitation. One might argue that Seidl himself is being exploitative, but he treats three largely different groups of people equally. The real shame belongs on us, we who exhibit the same traits of Teresa that we then chide her for, not on them.