Twenty-three years ago, ‘Shirley Valentine’ suggested that an idyllic beach holiday can be all it takes for a neglected middle-aged woman to find herself. ‘Paradise: Love,’ the startling first part of a planned trilogy of female character studies from unhurried Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl, takes a rather less rosy view of the benefits of sun, sand and some local passing trade: its matronly, mild-mannered protagonist Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) winds up far more lost than found on the bone-coloured shores of Kenya.
Dwelling on a similar vein of sex tourism to that sampled by Charlotte Rampling in 2006’s ‘Heading South’, Seidl’s film is considerably more sexually explicit than that softcore provocation – if you’ve always wanted to see a young African Adonis in the clutches of four rotund European women of a certain age, you no longer have to scour certain specialised corners of the Internet – but has no intention of titillating its audience. Instead, ‘Paradise: Love’ amounts to a witty if psychologically pitiless test of our unspoken presumptions about age, race, class and gender, lingering on the kind of physiques and interactions that Hollywood has long taught us are not fit for general consumption, and calmly inviting us to ask ourselves why we want to look away from the screen when we do.
Tiesel keeps Teresa’s motivations courageously opaque throughout: after losing her nerve during her first encounter with one of her resort’s infinite escorts, she continues to seek it with one unhappy, money-draining tryst after another. It’s her doomed, obtuse, are-we-having-fun-yet gumption that lends a sincere note of heartbreak to Seidl’s otherwise exquisitely austere, calculatedly claustrophobic construction. At 120 minutes, the director perhaps luxuriates in our discomfort a little too long, but it’s still a relief to be on our side of the screen.