If you live in London and either hate – or rightly don’t expect – any sunshine, you may consider taking a trip to either the Prince Charles Cinema or the ICA on Sunday 16 June. The former is playing Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy in its entirety on 35mm, while the latter is screening something a little more contemporary: Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, comprised of Love, Faith and Hope. Initially conceived as a single film, the 90+ hours of captured footage has instead been culled into separate feature-length episodes chronicling respective journeys of three family members.
Paradise: Love is the first of the trilogy, also on limited release this weekend with the remaining instalments to follow in the summer. The film tags along with the travels of 50-year old Austrian Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) as she departs from her family for a beach holiday in Kenya. Whilst there, the enticing practice of sex tourism opens its jaws to the mother, whose bodily imperfections – dated and overweight – are of no concern to the parade of young men flocking to her along the beach like pigeons to a scrap of bread.
In Seidl’s previous film, Import/Export, the director took a similar approach of following separate clusters of characters as they crossed borders in search of an unattainable antidote. These entries facilitated a shift in power relations hinging on the perception and treatment of the human body in all of its myriad frailties and limitations. Some of the action across both stories approached a sexual nature, with abuse of bodily power primarily manifested in a sexual imposition.
In that film, Seidl composed a tight, symmetrical distance that boxed his characters inside a frame-within-a-frame, consisting of two walls, a floor and often a ceiling. Following this precise establishment, his camera would then scuttle in and interrogate the human fascination within the environment, at once observing and keeping unsettled. In Paradise: Love, Seidl bring his camera in closer, mediating between the opposing imaging of his symmetrical compositions and his up-close lensing. He nestles into cramped spaces – most often the bedroom – and lets events run their course.
This is where common critical comparisons with Laurent Cantet’s Heading South, another tale of sex tourism on the continent, become moot. Although treading the exact same subject matter, the two films remain distinct because of their wildly contrasting aesthetics. Cantet’s film is thoroughly in service to a story told in seductive fashion, not unlike the temptations it depicts. Seidl, on the other hand, relies on an unmediated ugliness to probe the nuances within a less than clear-cut issue. For the Austrian filmmaker, to rely on montage is to miss a fleeting marvel of gesture, a beautiful blemish, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it revelation. Seidl is a documentarian and fundamentally a humanist, so his camera is, by extension, one of sharp, reserved consideration.
There’s very little judgement. Obese, often-naked bodies occupy the image, and the ordinarily embarrassing situations they’re found in – whether sex, insults, or solitary despair – are drawn out to an almost uncomfortable length. In contrast to Cantet’s comfort in his brisk, conventional narrative, Seidl aspires to deliver a blunt reality. There’s one scene among many in which Teresa moves along the sands of the beach, countless men approaching her with things to sell and variously loud ways to try and sell them. It’s a familiar holiday nightmare, and Seidl doesn’t cut away too early for the sake of economically expressing one isolated building block of plot.
In the world of sex tourism, these middle-aged women are accepted just as they are after being deemed imperfect in their native land. Unfortunately, this fetishism entails consequences of power. “He really gleams like a piece of lard,” taunts Teresa, in a particularly long scene consisting of her and a friend mocking a barman, who’s simply expected to stand there and take it. Elsewhere, Teresa takes great ease in dutifully instructing a lover who acts as if he is a naïve child, unversed in the intricacies of love-making. Again, Seidl takes time and care to show these interactions unfiltered, to let us follow the trail of discourse that leads of each various ends – of what one person wants, what the other understands, and how much each party gives away through their gestures.
It’s only when she realises some of the males’ larger, disingenuous ploy of extracting money that Teresa takes offence. What use is love when it comes with a caveat – of an exchange, an ugly compromise? Love is always a two-way game, and never a product. But don’t be fooled into believing the message is that simple, or that the film’s exotic location consigns it to any sort of ethnic exclusivity. The behaviour exhibited here is symptomatic of a universal naivety; Seidl prolongs time and discomfort, so that we may consider things well beyond the fate of a temporary avatar whose name is of relatively less importance.