Austrian auteur/provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s new films, his “Paradise” trilogy, reveal how Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel–in a fearless performance, really), her Catholic missionary sister, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), and her overweight 13-year-old daughter, Melanie (Melanie Lenz), spent their (separate) summer vacations. And while the proceeding are serious, Seidl’s strategy also involves humor–and sometimes humor so dark, it’s an embarrassment to laugh.
In “Paradise: Love” fat, 50, frumpy Teresa is first seen standing serenely on the sidelines, after the intense opening sequence: mentally handicapped, mostly young adults, in bumper cars, tongues drooping from slack mouths, slamming into each other. The assumption is Teresa works with the group.
After dropping Melanie off with her sister, Teresa travels to Kenya for a sex holiday, hoping for rejuvenation with the young black Beach Boys who peddle trinkets and boat rides but mostly themselves to western Sugar Mamas.
Teresa (and friends) eagerly strip down–sundresses, bikinis, naked. But unlike the opening bumper cars shot, which maybe crosses the line into gratuitous shock value, the shock of unlovely middle-aged big bodies makes Seidl’s point.
Citing Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, Seidl says, “women looking for a man who don‘t correspond to standard ideals of beauty have low market value. So they look for sexual fulfillment, and also love, elsewhere; in this case, with black men in Africa.” These middle-aged sex tourists aren’t Charlotte Rampling (yeah, she’s “of a certain age” too but the regular categories don’t apply) in Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South” (2005).
But while “hakuna matata” is on everyone’s lips–the Europeans are taught the phrase (“no worries”) as they exit the bus as it arrives at the resort, Teresa’s diversion is no cheery night at a Broadway theater. The resort’s grounds and beach are beautiful, idyllic, but all interactions between the Sugar Mamas and Beach Boys are ultimately about money–tainted, ugly, as who’s exploiting and humiliating whom seesaws back and forth.
“Paradise: Love” opens today at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, followed by the theatrical release of “Paradise: Faith” in the summer of 2013 and “Paradise: Hope” in the fall of 2013.
* from “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” by Bob Dylan