The Austrian divorcee Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is 50, overweight (bordering on obese), lonely and in dire need of a vacation. She drops off her sullen, cellphone obsessed daughter at the home of a relative and heads off to Kenya, where she quickly learns that all the young men on the beach selling bracelets and tchotkes are also available for sex. They’re not prostitutes — they don’t talk about prices or time frames — but they willingly jump into bed with women like Teresa and make them feel, at least for a moment, desirable and happy and attractive.
Then, invariably, the men say they need money for a sick cousin or child or uncle who is in dire need of surgery or medical treatment. The exchange of sexual favors for cash doesn’t seem quite as sleazy when it’s handled this way, and the middle-class Teresa is practically rich when compared to the impoverished locals.
For a while, Paradise: Love is a fascinating exploration of the thin line between victim and predator: Who is exploiting whom here? Teresa, who talks to her friends about her “fat ass” and her personal grooming habits and is fond of wearing grandly unflattering swimsuits, gets to live out a fantasy of being thin and pretty while these good-looking, muscular men grope her fat, lumpy body. But her suitors, such as the likable and easygoing Munga (Peter Kazungu), turn out to be vampires in disguise, using the illusion of romance and desire to suck as much money as they can out of the unwitting outsiders. (A warning for the prudish: The sex in the film is extremely graphic and worthy of an NC-17 rating.)
Director Ulrich Seidl ( Dog Days), who also co-wrote the screenplay, uses Paradise: Love as a metaphor for human consumerism — using people not for slave trade, but as objects to be bought and treated like trinkets. The movie is also a mirror for cultural and racial exploitation, with Teresa using her suitors as blatantly as they use her. Tiesel allows herself to be photographed in unflattering ways like a sympathetic victim. Like the rest of her fellow female vacationers, Teresa is driven by her desire for pleasure and is completely lacking in self-awareness (on vacation, we often feel liberated of our consciences and societal restraints). Her personality is flinty and at times aggressive, but she’s never evil or abusive: If anything, she’s too generous to the smiling jackals who keep asking her to help with their ill loved ones.
Paradise: Love is the first of a trilogy Seidl has already completed (the other two movies, Paradise: Hope and Paradise: Faith, focus respectively on Teresa’s daughter and the woman who was left to look after her). The thought of two more pictures like this one is as much of a threat as it is enticing: Seidl, like his fellow Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke ( Amour), likes to put the viewer through the wringer. There’s a long birthday party sequence near the end of the picture involving Teresa, her friends and a male stripper that wallows so deeply in humiliation and exploitation and is so disturbing to watch, it borders on overkill. The movie starts feeling like a bully. But Seidl wants Paradise: Love to be as much of a visceral experience as it is an observational one: That churning in your stomach may be unpleasant, but it’s necessary for the film to deliver its blistering punch.