Ulrich Seidl's Cannes drama reverses the gender dynamic on sexual exploitation and proves to be a draining experience
There is always the one movie in Cannes that you wish you could unsee. Last year it was "Michael," the day-to-day meditation of a pedophile with a boy in his basement. This year, it has to be "Paradies: Liebe," Ulrich Seidl's film about middle-aged white women who go to Kenya to exploit poverty stricken males by paying them for sex. While the topic is vital and worth exposing, it's mighty hard to sit through a solid two hours of this torture.
Most women of a certain age who have "let themselves go" have long since given up on passionate sex. To be adored and hungered for isn't on the menu. In its place, either sexless companionship or chicken-fried steak and the jackrabbit vibrator. But the truth of it, which is what "Paradies" sets out to illustrate, is that it isn't really sex so much as love that many of these women are after. But if is to be sex for money, it might as well be as customer-friendly as possible.
We're accustomed to seeing men exploit vulnerable women in poor countries for sex, but we haven't often seen women do it. It's hard to imagine a woman, much less one who looks like your grandmother, needing sex so much she becomes the predator. But just because a woman's sexuality is hidden from view after she reaches middle age doesn't mean it goes away.
The story follows Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a woman who works with the disabled. She's a single mother to an indifferent teen, and for the most part has nothing in her life that makes her even remotely happy. Life has become a chore. Then her friend tells her how African boy toys in Keyna are ripe for the picking, just waiting for a white "sugar mama." It's a mutually beneficial relationship if everyone plays by the rules — he needs her money, she needs his attention.
Teresa decides to go to a Kenyan resort, and for much of the early part of her trip we watch her parade around in her bra and underwear. The director doesn't want us to see her as a desirable woman. He appears to seek both our disapproval and perhaps our repulsion, and he succeeds at both. Watching Teresa lumber around the room, we can't take our eyes off of her flab, which hangs from her torso and rests on her upper thigh. We silently wonder: What man is going to want to devour that? We hate ourselves for thinking that — but we're all thinking that.
What follows is a display of the very desperation that motivates young African males to seduce women like Teresa, playing an odd courting ritual. First comes the hand-holding, then the trip to the young man's improverished village, then the purchase of a condom, then awkward sex in a tiny hovel. At first, Teresa resists the advances of her fake beau, but soon she meets a guy who knows exactly how to seduce her. She falls for it. When that goes sour, she evolves, finally, into a woman who is willing to get her money's worth.
In one horrifying scene, four German middle-aged women are groping a stripper, trying to get him hard. The one who can do it wins – but, of course, the bitter truth is that none of those women will do it for him. Still, they are undeterred. By now, they've mostly shut out those voices of protest — they've stopped caring whether the men desire them or not. This is a financial deal, not an emotional one.
Seidl never lets you forget that in parts of Africa, and other places in the world, there is almost nothing you can't buy. In one of the more haunting scenes, African men stand immobile beyond the boundaries of the resort and the women sit watching them, knowing that they can have their pick. All they have to do is be willing to accept how disgusting it is. Once they get past that, they're capable of grabbing a tiny piece of sexual pleasure even if they have to pay through the nose for it.
Teresa's own sexuality is buried beneath layers of self-loathing and a misleading desire for romance, passion and love. She arrogantly and stupidly thinks she can find that on the streets of Kenya, that it might be possible that they could ever be equals. This blindness makes us hate Teresa and all of her kind — can't they see what they are doing?
It is a grotesque, draining experience, watching "Paradies" play out. These women might think they've found paradise — who knows how long this has been going on, and whether it continues to this day? — but what they've really found is hell on earth.