Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy takes three basic needs – the need to love, the need to believe in some higher power, and the need for company -, and then shows how we fail most of the time. That doesn’t make Seidl a pessimist – maybe he is just very curious to the point of intrusion. I am not so sure why he chose two women and a girl as his main characters, and I am not sure what the paradise of the title means, but these are three movies that ask the right questions and wisely avoid giving any clear answers.
This trilogy may not be easy to watch. Seidl’s gaze doesn’t flinch, his camera rarely moves or zooms. There is a rigid geometry to his frames: many shots feature some sort of symmetry or at least horizontal or vertical lines of reference – the horizon, train tracks, the roof of a house, a window. His characters are often shown to inhabit the centre of the screen, within clear sight of the audience.
This clarity and order is at odds with some emotional or moral dilemma of one of its protagonists. Sometimes it looks like the edge of the screen is some sort of protection, but more often than not, these three women, and other characters, desperately try to break out of it. The two first main characters are played by renowned Austrian actresses; everybody else seems like they were picked up in the street and put on set. Some of them are.
The three main characters are introduced at the beginning of Paradise: Love. Teresa and Anna are sisters, while Melanie is Teresa’s teenage daughter. Teresa takes care of a group of people with special needs; there is, for the whole trilogy, a fitting first scene with bumper cars, not moving at first, then jolting to life and trying to find their route without any clear destination. Everyone has special needs – not because everyone thinks they’re special, but because we are all individuals, looking for something.
Teresa goes to spend her holiday in Kenia. She is egged on by a group of friends to get herself a toy-boy, who will make love to her for money. Both parties are in on the deal. You pretend to like me, and I will pay you and pretend to like you, too. This offer is subject to mood and need and can be cancelled anytime without prior notice. Seidl uses a chilling shot to establish that situation: there is a line along the beach along which men in uniform are patrolling. On the land side, there are rows of deckchairs, where the female tourists lie. On the other side stand the local vendors. They are not allowed to cross the line, and none of them do. The watchmen must exercise a very strict rule over that line, although we never see them at it.
Teresa is shy at first, almost reluctant, and an initial encounter makes her feel used, and she dumps the guy before he gets into bed with her. There are the salesmen on the beach with their beads and keyrings and souvenirs who are crowding her, and when her refusal to listen to them doesn’t work, there is Munga, unmistakable with his dreadlocks, who sends those overeager guys away. She suspects that this is his spiel. He does not ask her for anything, but is happy to watch over her while she wades in the water, and later show her his village, his flat, his bag of weed and his bed. They have sex. Teresa falls for him because Munga treats her as a human being. He seems inexperienced when it comes to touching a woman, and she teaches him how to. There is a sort of grim comedy to those scenes. A guy that inexperienced, he must be… different.
Let me digress here for a moment. There is a fair amount of nudity in this movie. Teresa is overweight, but she is also attractive. In some scenes, when she is on her way to Munga, she glows with the anticipation of meeting him. Other movies rely on younger and slimmer actresses to get naked. My point is this: most women’s bodies don’t look like models’, and most men are not muscle-bound athletes. Teresa looks… normal. Despite Seidl’s visual compositions, there is a realism to his environment that asks for normal people. If the physical appearance of some of his characters is a problem for you – well, what do you and the people around you look like?
To Teresa’s mind, Munga and her embark on a relationship. He introduces Teresa to his sister, who has a baby in her arms. Munga mentions another child who is in hospital and needs an urgent procedure, but Munga and his family don’t have the money. Teresa is happy to help out, and she gives him some cash. They visit a school, and Munga again asks her for money for school funds. When Teresa hands over only a small amount, the teacher gets cross and sends her away. Munga tells her off later, too, and it’s finally clear that this was his spiel. Well, she should have known that all along, but seemed to forget for a moment. He is just more patient than the vendors on the beach, and slightly cleverer as well.
Well, what did Teresa expect? Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we have found the real thing – fame, money, love – that we walk towards the snakepit with eyes and arms wide open. We need to love, and to be loved – it’s one of the most powerful drives in us humans. We can’t not love. And the promise of that makes us far too trustworthy. Some people are hard-wired that way.
The same goes for Munga. I don’t think he is indifferent to Teresa, but when you can get money out of the woman who comes and makes love to you, why not? She must have loads of it. And he must be grateful to have learnt how to touch a woman. Here’s a cruel thought: Maybe his inexperience is part of his act. Maybe his ‘sister’ is his wife, and the kid is his. And the kid in the hospital doesn’t exist. Who knows? Munga is gone, and Teresa has no clue where to put her love.
Of course Teresa is deeply hurt and disillusioned, but she meets another guy. She can’t not try. There must be some truth in her friend’s smirk when she talks about her black boyfriend. Of course Teresa knew that she wouldn’t find lasting love in Kenia, and that bitter disappointment, in herself as well as in Munga, together with her feelings of revenge, lead to the scene with the male stripper for her birthday and the sad hopeless scene where she tries to seduce the barkeeper. This was never about seduction, but about business. Teresa returns home hurt, disillusioned and with some new, shiny prejudices. She is sadder than before her holiday, and her sadness is deepened by her knowledge that she didn’t have a real choice.