Cannes review of Paradise: Love by Ulrich Seidl
PARADISE: LOVE *** Directed by Ulrich Seidl Starring Margarethe Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux, Carlos Mkutano 120 min, playing in competition When Ulrich Seidl, a director who makes other Austrians seem jolly, announced that his latest project was to be the …
Directed by Ulrich Seidl
Starring Margarethe Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux, Carlos Mkutano
120 min, playing in competition
When Ulrich Seidl, a director who makes other Austrians seem jolly, announced that his latest project was to be the first part of a trilogy, veterans of his work could be forgiven for viewing this as more of a threat than a promise. With films such as Dog Days and Import Export — brilliant in their horrid ways — Ulrich demonstrated a near pathological addiction to misanthropy. We can safely assume his latest film, playing at Cannes in the main competition, will have nothing in common with The Lion King.
As it happens, that’s not quite true. When a party of Austrian ladies arrive for their holiday in Kenya they are tutored in basics of the language. The tour leader does, indeed, force them to bellow “Hakuna Mutata” over and over again. Similarities end there.
This is, however, certainly a less frightening beast than Seidl’s earlier films. The excellent Margarethe Tiesel plays Anna Maria, a larger single woman with an annoying teenage daughter and an unseen cat. Depending upon your view, she emerges as either a Silly Old Fool or a monstrous foot soldier of post-colonial tyranny. Seidl probably expects us to see her as a bit of both.
The first half of Paradise: Love (might that title be ironic?) is quite superb — and properly funny — in its representation of western boors at play. The film could (we’ll come to this) be accused of depicting Africans in an unflattering light. But its take on Austrian manners is considerably more savage. The women sunbathe in military rows like pink sausages waiting for the grill. A rope on the beach separates the hawkers from their targets. The tourists’ attitude to the natives veers from the patronising to the hugely offensive. How can “the negroes” be told apart? Well, some are taller than others. As they cackle lasciviously at the barman it’s hard to shake off thoughts of the Fat Slags from Viz.
Eventually, Anna Maria hooks up with a young Kenyan who seems interested in her rather than her money. But he is, in fact, just playing a craftier game. He introduces her to a sick child and asks for cash to pay the hospital. Anna Maria gives in, but soon begins to suspect the truth.
That episode asks the viewer all kinds of worthwhile questions. Is poverty an excuse for larceny? Can such a relationship ever function as an engagement of equals? This dry, cold film-maker would never permit any easy answers.
It is certainly worrying that virtually every Kenyan in the film appears to be on the make. But Seidl takes such a pessimistic view of all human nature that it would seem incongruous if things were otherwise. Anna Maria is, at first, allowed a degree of decency. Her desperate, futile attempts to connect with her daughter reveal a soft heart. Her loneliness virtually burns a hole in the screen.
But, in the picture’s later stages, Seidl can’t resist wielding the knife and the woman is encouraged to behave more and more like a decadent western sow. The bad sex gets worse. The attitude towards the Kenyan hosts deteriorates further. By the end, we feel — as we often do with Seidl — that he’s simply trying to turn our stomachs. What a shame. He had a small masterpiece on his hands before he returned to picking indulgently at scabs.
Still, there’s enough here for us to anticipate the sequels with guarded enthusiasm. The subsequent films may, at least, explain why the current picture begins with a sequence depicting mentally challenged adults driving dodgem cars. Is it a metaphor for the girls’ holiday? Beats me, guv.