Home Video Hovel: Paradise: Love, by Aaron Pinkston
I’ll cut to the chase: Paradise: Love is rough. It’s depressing, problematic, and audacious (not in a bawdy comedy sort-of-way). It’s a tough film to recommend, but I think you should see it — in part because of its problems, but also because it focuses on characters and situations that we don’t typically see. Paradise: Love is the first in director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy (the other two with the subtitles Faith and Hope). The conceit of the trilogy is actually pretty clever — each film focuses on one member of a family who goes off on some sort of vacation to an exotic locale for a specific purpose, indicated by the subtitle. In Love, lonely Austrian Teresa visits a beautiful resort in Kenya, with the hopes of having a connection.
Strangely, the film’s depictions of “paradise” and “love” are quite distorted. At first, everything seems quite beautiful. The landscapes are stunning, with diverse environments, lots of sun and water. Teresa meets some other middle-aged women at the resort and is told of the rawkus times they have been having with some of the local men, who seem very interested in white women. She’s excited about the possibilities, but unsure if she can really go through with it. As the film goes on, we start seeing the cracks in the trip. Over the course of her vacation, Kenya transforms from a beautiful destination to a gritty and poor environment filled with beggars and thieves. Similarly, Teresa’s fun and cutesy trysts become a bit more threatening.
Teresa has “dates” with four men in the film and (minus the finale) they all play out in the exact same way. I’ll refrain from spoiling specifics, but will say that the men all do specific things for the same end goal. Each time the signs show, the film becomes almost excruciating to watch with many “no, don’t go upstairs, what are you doing” type moments — Paradise: Love isn’t a horror film, but it garners that same reaction at times. Teresa is the kind of gullible character that you want to cheer for, but she makes it difficult.
That’s not the only reason Paradise: Love is difficult to watch, though, as the film is also very sexually explicit. Normally that wouldn’t necessarily be something to complain about, but the film does an interesting thing by centering the movie around a 50-something, overweight woman. Personally, I think it is commendable for both the performers and the filmmaker to make a heavily romantic and sexual film populated by real-looking people — there is absolutely no way this film would be made in Hollywood (not with critics like Rex Reed hanging around). I don’t think the film is consciously fighting against the genre normally filled with pretty little perfect people, but I responded to its inherent rebelliousness. I was able to emotionally connect with the central character more than I typically do, and I think that many people who see the film will see something of themselves in the struggles of Teresa.
While Teresa is constantly unsure of herself, the film is quite bold and confident in displaying her body, and there is profound beauty in that. The film doesn’t hold your hand, and certainly doesn’t make you feel comfortable, but has a sort of “this isn’t the end of the world, everything will be OK” attitude. I often find it troubling to note an actress’s “bravery” for baring it all, as you normally only hear that when the actress isn’t your A-list ideal, but there is something to be said for Margarete Tiesel’s performance, which must have been an emotionally draining one.
This isn’t to say that Teresa is completely a victim — the film draws the women at the resort in a complex way. There is a tinge of racism in many of their interactions, making innocuous but ignorant remarks like comparing a man with the Uncle Ben caricature. They also seem to treat the African men like objects to use for their own sexual needs. In the film’s final scene, Teresa’s last sexual encounter, she basically takes advantage of a man without the emotional capability to handle the situation — while she’s been threatened with embarrassment throughout the film, she ends up becoming the one who pushes too hard. What the film does with this character is intriguing. Teresa is a source of awkward connection but someone you can’t quite stand behind.