“A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end.”

– Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphes (1942)

It is possibly one of the most striking images I have seen in any film to date: an idyllic sand beach, white and blinding, lined with pale-skinned Europeans reclining in unhurried repose. On one side of a fence they lie in sun-bleached luxury, like pimento peppers set out to dry; on the other side, a scattering of black Kenyans, arms laden with jewellery and crafts to sell, looking on with bemused expectation. Here, in this single image, lies the crux of Paradies: Liebe, a sublimely harrowing exploration of exploitation and the desire to be loved – no matter what the cost.

The initial viewing is discomfiting, to be sure. It is not difficult to imagine Seidl seated behind the camera, watching your expression with rapt ingenuity, simply daring you to flinch, to avert your gaze, to squirm, to recoil – and no doubt you will. No dialogue or image is censored or diluted for ease of viewing; the film is defiant in presenting the ugliness of an apparent paradise. Flesh and perversity is displayed with grotesque realism, but Siedl’s lens hardly casts judgement and instead compels the viewer to fashion his/her own judgements. Some may find it rather easy to do so – the casual racism and objectification is interchangeably accompanied with slightly absurdist humour and scenes of exquisitely uncomfortable tension. While Teresa’s (a fearless Inge Maux) friends seek out young Kenyans purely for sexual purposes, Teresa herself seems to committed to seeking a relationship with one of the young men. The dramatic irony is particularly palpable as her first ‘boyfriend’ Munga begins to ask her for money for sick relatives, reconsidering the very nature of exploitation.

One wonders at these moments if Teresa can really be so naive, or just desperate enough to be ignorant. Her exploits – alternating between lounging in fitful apathy on the beach and various states of almost sweetly awkward and endearing moments with Munga – take on an increasingly unsettling nature, as we witness the descent from longing to uncomfortable degradation, undercut with a current of vast loneliness. Her motherly pleading with her daughter on the phone is contrasted with scenes of walking back to the resort at night, alone and in darkness; contrasted with one of the final and most difficult scenes, in which her friends arrange an inpromptu birthday party for her, complete with male stripper. The scene is memorable for a number of reasons, mainly because of its extended and explicit nature, bringing into sharp relief the divide between these women and the local men. Accordingly, the film does not attempt a light-hearted empowerment of middle-aged female sexuality, but instead demands a statement on the nature of power imbalance: financial and sexual power, rooted in an uncomfortable post-colonial reclamation, as evidenced by the fact that we are never allowed a glimpse into the thoughts of the Kenyans.

Thematically, there persistently remains a physical, social, and racial divide between the Africans and Europeans; and Seidl makes superb use of colour and static visual scenery to emphasise this divide – the contrast between the sagging, white bodies of the Austrian women and the lithe, dark skin of the Kenyan men; the artificially luxurious beach resort to the roughly constructed villages. It is exceptionally bold and telling filmmaking, deliberately aggressive and filthy in its intention, but with a misanthropic infusion of realism which straddles the line between an untinted perspective on the vices of humanity and the quest for happiness, begging the question of whether the two can be indistinguishable.