A graphic, unflinching look at the interplay of desire, money and power among European women sex tourists and African gigolos hit the screen in the Cannes contender “Paradise: Love”.
Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, who scandalised cinema’s top international showcase five years ago with another take on rich and poor and the sex trade, “Import/Export”, this time turns his camera on women as the consumers.
“Paradise: Love” stars Margarethe Tiesel as Teresa, a 50-year-old Viennese single mother of an insolent teenage daughter who needs a break from it all, in a breakout performance cheered by audiences here.
She sets off alone to the white sandy coast of eastern Kenya where she falls in with a group of “sugar mamas”, fellow middle-aged women who feel neglected at home and seek the attention of much younger local men in exchange for cash.
“It is about female loneliness that takes hold when you reach a certain age and no longer look like someone from an advert,” Tiesel told reporters.
“The exploited begin to exploit in a place where they have power. I don’t judge these women, I understand them and I understand completely what they struggle with.”
Tiesel, an accomplished stage actress in her first major film role, appears nude through much of the picture and has various on-screen couplings with Kenyan “beach boys” that leave little to the imagination.
She said her faith in Seidl as a director gave her the confidence to expose herself to such an extent.
“Ulrich told me from the beginning, ‘Nothing will happen that you don’t want to happen, Frau Tiesel’,” she said.
Teresa begins tentatively at first, breaking off a tryst with an insistent lover when he goes too fast for her.
But she soon meets Munga (Peter Kuzungu), a dreadlocked charmer and a willing student in the ways of Western seduction.
However as their affair continues, his demands for money become more frequent as he describes the plight of his poor “sister” and her baby.
When Teresa finds out the woman is actually his wife, she flies into a jealous rage and beats him in front of the other guests on the hotel’s palm-lined beach.
Duped and disappointed, she tries to steel herself to ferociously pursue beach boys with little regard for their dignity, or her own.
Seidl, one of 22 directors competing for the top prize at Cannes this year — all of them men, said many Western women were looking for more than a holiday fling, a key difference to male sex tourism in developing countries.
“This is about our society in the first place and asking why women like Teresa find themselves so lonely. They go to these places where they think they can get what they need — their desire for happiness, sexuality and tenderness,” he said.
“Women from the rich West exploit young African men. But it’s also a business, and they (the men) get something for it.”
The cast and the crew did extensive research among European sugar mamas in Kenya.
Kuzungu, whom Seidl found working as a beach boy near Mombasa, is now separated from his German wife, who bought him a house and a car.
He said that based on his experience, he thought sex tourism involving older Western men and young African women was “more disgusting than old women and young guys”.
“If your husband is in Africa telling you that he’s helping people, it’s not true. He’s there only for sex. That is the reality,” he said.
“Paradise” revisits ground covered in the trailblazing 2005 film “Heading South” starring Charlotte Rampling and set in a Haitian resort, but critics hailed a compelling new take on the rich subject matter.
“Import/Export” dealt with women from the former Soviet Union working in the West as prostitutes and featured a notorious scene in which an amateur actress performed on-screen oral sex on an actor after being made to crawl on all fours and bark like a dog.
Some reviewers praised that picture as a brilliant take on the commoditisation of the human body under modern capitalism but the Hollywood Reporter notably dismissed the Cannes entry as a “tawdry little film”.