Cannes Diary: Rain, Austrian director bring Cannes a darker tone

May 18, 2012

Milos Stehlik

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For days now, everyone at Cannes has been talking about the coming bad weather. The weekend is turning colder – cloudy and with rain. The whimsical, fairy-tale atmosphere of opening night film Moonrise Kingdom has quickly worn off for darker colors.

To wit: Take Paradise: Love, a film by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. Seidl is that rare filmmaker for whom reality takes no prisoners. His films skewer the complacency and rigidity of Viennese suburban life and its barely-covered perversions. In one of his best known films, Import/Export, Seidl inverts two stories of sexual exploitation in Austria and Russia. Paradise is the first film in a proposed trilogy dealing with women on holiday.

If this sounds too idyllic, it is. The central, unnamed character is a middle-aged Austrian woman. As the film begins, she leaves her unresponsive daughter with a relative and departs for Kenya. 

The Kenyan ocean-side resort where she vacations is filled with other women like her (read: middle-aged, overweight and obsessed with their fading beauty). Outside the resort’s manicured grounds, young African men sell trinkets – and themselves. With performances that are brave and at times astonishing (lots of frontal nudity), the film takes on themes of interracial sex, sexual exploitation (both ways) and the inherent racism and humiliation at the heart of this situation. What’s even more remarkable is that the film makes the audience complicit in its graphically-depicted game, in which the search for love is really a racial and financial transaction.

Unfortunately for the film’s director, many festival attendees didn’t bother to show up for the first screening. Knowing something of Seidl’s previous work, perhaps, they decided to skip it. Paradise was also scheduled at odd times: 4 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. These times preclude large-scale evening galas for movie producers and their starlet-assistants. Talking to Ed Lachman, one of the two cinematographers for Paradise, Thursday night, I learned Seidl and the crew just arrived yesterday for dinner.

I guess the festival knew Seidl isn’t everyone’s Midnight in Paris.