Austrian director Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export, Dog Days) specializes in depictions of methodical cruelty, so a movie from him called Paradise: Love more or less tells viewers to abandon all hope. As it happens, Love is just the first chapter in Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, which was originally intended as a single epic film, but wound up being divided into three separate works. (Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope have already made their festival premières, and will presumably be released later this year.) That’s probably just as well, really, since this introduction is punishing on its own; bottomless loneliness is its primary subject. For better and for worse—often simultaneously—few movies have been as unflinching about the ugly, heartbreaking ways human beings can mutually exploit one another for fun and/or profit.
Middle-aged Margarete Tiesel says goodbye to her sister and her daughter (the protagonists of the other two films) and embarks on a vacation to Kenya in the company of several female friends, one of whom has been several times before, and can’t stop gushing about all the nubile black flesh for the taking. Sure enough, the sunbathing ladies—all of them white, though grotesquely tan—are constantly surrounded by young, impoverished “beach boys.” No money ever exchanges hands in direct relation to any sex act, but invariably the latest young man, after servicing Tiesel, will find a way to introduce her to some relative whom he claims is in desperate need of financial assistance. Diesel’s increasingly frustrated efforts to find a lover who’s interested in her rather than the contents of her purse do no credit to anybody, especially since every other sentence she speaks is casually racist.
Thanks to Tiesel’s shrewd, fearless performance (where “fearless,” as usual, means “gets naked a lot,” though it probably takes more courage for someone who’s 53 and obese), Paradise: Love isn’t nearly as reductive as Laurent Cantet’s disappointing 2005 film Heading South, which starred Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young as similar sex tourists in Haiti. Individual scenes are often potent, and Seidl isn’t afraid to drive home his points via striking imagery, like the sight of the beach boys standing patiently just beyond a barrier separating them from the sunbathing Europeans. Still, in the end, it’s a bit like watching the Nigerian Scam being perpetrated over and over again on the same stubborn, clueless victim, and the fact that the victim is equally culpable in this scenario doesn’t in any way lessen the monotony. Forty minutes of this material as part of a two-hour triptych might have been more effective, but it’s too late now.