Monday, October 15, 2012

A film festival audience goes to Paradise

Posted By on 10.15.12 at 06:00 PM

Symmetry, exploitation in Kenya
  • Symmetry, exploitation in Kenya
What surprised me most about the screening of Paradise: Love I attended on Saturday night was how much warm laughter I heard in the audience. I was familiar going in with the work of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, so I knew to expect shocking imagery that blurred the line between art and exploitation; I even anticipated that some viewers would leave early in disgust (as they did at the Chicago premiere of Seidl's Import/Export in 2008). But much of the audience, to my ears, seemed to accept the film's explicit nudity and sex—most of which involves overweight women in their 50s and 60s—as part of an artistic vision and not as mere shock value. In any case, I didn't hear much of the uncomfortable or derisive laughter that greeted Lee Daniels's The Paperboy when I saw it at the Landmark Century a week ago. Daniels's film is as outrageous in its sexual content as Paradise: Love—in fact, the polymorphous perverse relationship it depicts between Zac Efron and Macy Gray may be more radical than anything shown in Seidl's. But it opened here under a markedly different aura than Paradise, which may have something to do with the different responses.

Many reviewers have described The Paperboy as trash (even Roger Ebert, in his generally favorable review, described it as such in his opening sentence), while the prestige associated with the Chicago International Film Festival gave Paradise: Love the veneer of serious art. I've noticed that this prestige goes a long way in terms of normalizing taboo imagery. When I saw Eliseo Subiela's Don't Look Down (pace Dan Savage, one of the most sex-positive movies I've seen outside of pornography) at CIFF in 2008, the crowd responded warmly to that one too. The film hasn't screened since in Chicago, so I don't know if it would have the same response in other surroundings.

Even without the festival atmosphere, it would be easy to recognize Seidl's artistic ambitions. His work feels influenced less by cinema than by the still photography of vaunted figures like Diane Arbus. Scenes regularly transpire in static shots that last for minutes at a time, encouraging the spectator to evolve his feelings about what he sees as he studies the image. The shots are consistently impeccably lit and arranged: one of his favorite set-ups is the symmetrical composition with multiple lighting sources in and around the frame. A spectator must explore the image, search for contradictory cues (needless to say, Seidl's films gain immeasurably from a big screen).

From Paradise: Love
  • From Paradise: Love
In documentaries and fiction films alike, Seidl brings this aesthetic to bear on subjects that many would consider ugly, infirm, or deranged. Import/Export was notorious for its images of real nursing home residents, many of whom seemed to be in the final stages of Alzheimer's. Paradise: Love regards several Austrian "sugar mamas," middle-class women who travel to Kenya to have sex with impoverished younger men. With one exception, all of Seidl's white female subjects are overweight, vain, and narrow-minded. That the director cast real Kenyan gigolos as their marks only stokes one's disgust at their exploitative "adventures."

Seidl doesn't try to mask his contempt for the arrangement. "Third-world tourism is nothing more than an updated colonialism," he said in an interview earlier this year, and Paradise: Love is no less blunt in its politics. Most images of the luxurious resort where the Austrian women stay are followed by images of Kenyan poverty. One doesn't need to look much further than that to experience moral outrage.

And yet Seidl doesn't seem content with such an easy response. As his earlier Models stared at conventionally attractive women until they seemed hideous, Paradise: Love stares at its monsters until they seem human. Seidl seems to be working in a sympathetic vein here; when the sugar mamas kibitz about their disappointments with aging, speaking openly about sagging flesh and thinning pubic hair, their intimate laughter can be infectious (it was for Saturday night's audience). And when Teresa, the film's central character, attempts a local dance that one of her "beach boys" teaches her, she appears contented in a pure, almost childlike way.

Indeed, it's surprising how innocent much of Paradise: Love feels. Seidl's meticulous compositions have always reminded me a bit of Buster Keaton's, and here, he comes closer to G-rated comedy than I ever expected him to. There's a brief sequence early on when Teresa discovers a monkey on the patio of her hotel room, and the resulting sight gag wouldn't be out of place in a Disney film. Moments like these contribute to the impression that, while sexual tourism is inherently corrupt, the people who perpetuate it are more naive than anything. As the title unsubtly implies, the sugar mamas may be searching for sex to make up for the absence of love in their lives. Teresa's most fulfilling sexual encounter (and one of the film's longest scenes) has an air of playful discovery to it, suggesting a desire for human, rather than sexual, connection in both participants. (Notably, it's one of the scenes where Seidl's framing is the least meticulous.) It inspired some of the most encouraging laughter I heard on Saturday, giving the impression that Seidl had succeeded in establishing intimacy with his subjects—rather than ironic detachment, which is often the case in his work.

Nicole Kidman, second from right, miming fellatio in The Paperboy
  • Nicole Kidman, second from right, miming fellatio in The Paperboy
Would The Paperboy have a similar impact on audiences if it were advertised as serious art? Probably not; it was widely derided as trash when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. But I think the film is up to something similar when it comes to challenging prejudices about race, age, and sexuality. Casting John Cusack and Nicole Kidman as poor southerners and Matthew McConnaughey as a homosexual defies common expectations about how such characters should look—and makes one think about why such expectations exist in the first place. Similarly, the scenes of characters feigning sex acts for each other has the effect of rendering sex a form of theater, an act divorced from "real life" in which physical instinct triumphs over forces of social control. (I've described the movie to friends as a cross between Flaming Creatures and In Cold Blood.) I wonder how audiences would have responded if CIFF had programmed it with Paradise: Love as a double feature.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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