The opening sequence of Paradise: Love doesn't really have anything to do with what follows, but it does establish director Ulrich Seidl's unflinching eye. At a pavilion somewhere in Austria, a group of cognitively challenged children, many apparently with Down syndrome, ride bumper cars under the supervision of Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel). There's no hint of sentimentality, no attempt at reassurance.
In fact Teresa, a corpulent middle-aged divorcee with a surly teenage daughter, clearly needs a vacation — and the Alps or the Baltic won't do. After a consult with a hedonistic pal, Inge (Inge Maux), Teresa heads for a Kenyan resort to enjoy the attentions of the well-built young men who line up just beyond the ropes claiming most of the hotel's beach for paying guests only.
Co-written by Seidl and his regular collaborator Veronika Franz, Paradise: Love is startlingly frank if narratively underdeveloped. It picks up the theme of the filmmaker's 2007 Import/Export, in which characters cross between East and West — specifically between Austria and Ukraine — in search of work. This time, he observes a North-South transaction, with only one side in it for the money.
The tourists don't exactly hire the locals, yet the subject of cash soon arises, sometimes subtly but often not. As in Heading South, French director Laurent Cantet's 2005 film on the same subject, older women use their financial power to replace faded sexual allure. The men rely on physical beauty — and don't necessarily bother to be charming.
While the women are more interested in niceties, they can be condescending and even racist. Before hitting the beach, Teresa and a friend cackle while insisting that a bartender parrot the German names of foodstuffs whose shininess reminds them of his skin.
Then it's time for more carnal pursuits. The first gigolo Teresa encounters is too abrupt, and she flees. She's happier with the dreadlocked Munga (nonprofessional actor Peter Kuzungu), who's gentler and never asks for anything for himself. (He does, it will transpire, have an intriguingly large number of relatives who need urgent medical care.)
It might seem that, once she becomes disillusioned with Munga, Teresa would have had enough of the hustle. But she keeps pursuing her notion of a holiday romance until a raunchy scene with a male stripper — echoing one with a female prostitute in Import/Export — reveals the hopelessness of her quest.
Teresa's doggedness parallels the movie's own. Paradise: Love would be more compelling if it had a second act in which either its protagonist or one of her boy toys came to some sort of realization. Instead, Seidl's strategy is to reiterate and escalate, which is finally more exhausting than illuminating. If nothing else, the film's second half proves Tiesel's daring and dedication as an actor.
The director has a background in documentary, where he developed instincts that serve him well. Strikingly photographed by Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman, who also shot Import/Export, the movie includes some striking real-world sequences. When Teresa and her giggly friends go to watch crocodiles at feeding time, it's a metaphor for voraciousness that also works as sheer exotic spectacle.
Partially improvised, Paradise: Love began as movie about three female relatives on separate (and disparate) vacations. It snowballed into a trilogy, with the forthcoming Paradise: Faith (about a missionary) and Paradise: Hope (about a diet camp) as separate films.
Perhaps those installments will be shapelier, with stronger resolutions to their premises. But it's unlikely that they'll be more audacious than this exploration of European sex tourism.