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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).
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.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.