There are few movie subjects as inspirational and life-affirming as the clash between cultures. The annals of filmdom are rife with stories about the meeting of minds and spirits across the geographical divide of whole continents and the even wider chasm of differing ethnographic backgrounds. We cheer when, against insurmountable odds, an unlikely connection between two souls takes place before our approving eyes. We glide out of the theater, ready to take on any challenge standing in the way of reaching our own goals.
Paradise: Love, the first chapter in Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy about three women’s separate quests for fulfillment, is not that kind of movie. It’s a ferocious deadpan satire set in a Kenyan beach resort frequented by European tourists who are drawn to the tropical weather, the lush beaches, and those ebony-skinned studs who know just how to show them a good time. These sightseeing tours often take place in the cozy comfort of a cheap motel room, or at these men’s humble abode. Call it a lust-driven safari. The question Seidl poses, the one that propels his episodic, broken-record narrative, is this: Who is the hunter and who is the prey?
Fifty-year-old Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) leaves behind her humdrum life as single mother to sullen, ungrateful teenage daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) and bumper-car ride operator for some R & R in the Dark Continent. Yes, dark as in those nice, easygoing men who will surely reignite her long-dormant sex drive. She’s been saving her pennies, and now it’s time to cash in. The other middle-aged women she meets at the resort assure her she’s in for a treat. You want to be with them because their skin “smells of coconut,” observes a friend who sits with her at a poolside bar while their bartender, whom they nickname “Uncle Ben,” patiently attends to their needs. “They look the same,” remarks Teresa. After a pause, she asks, “Do you think I should shave down there?”
You get the drift: Gobsmackingly racist Eurotrash trolls for exotic African fruit, the “beach boys” who are all too willing to take advantage of their deep pockets and naïvété. It’s a vicious circle of mutual exploitation Seidl explores with laserlike precision and a knack for mining absurdist laughs out of squirm-inducing situations. In his unforgiving universe, the class line dividing the white sunbathers from the Kenyan buzzards waiting to swarm over them is not metaphorical. It’s quite literal. Teresa eventually crosses that barrier and begins to go out with a series of local men who promise them intimacy without asking her for money. At least not at first. After a disastrous first motel encounter – turns out she’s more prudish than she initially lets on – Teresa meets Munga (Peter Kazungu), and this time she’s able to shed her inhibitions…but not without some coaching. (Caress the breast, don’t paw it.) Oh yes, Seidl goes there, and he’s just warming up. The lovebirds take to the streets holding hands. The sunburned visitor’s on Cloud Nine with the dread-locked boy of her dreams, and then he takes her to the local school and asks her to give the cash-strapped teacher some moola. “It’s not enough,” the teacher frets. Then he takes her to see his sister. Out comes the wallet. Give, give, give.
Teresa’s ill-fated holiday comes to a climax of sorts during a birthday party her friends throw for her in her hotel bedroom. Their gift: a slim young boy toy wearing only a pink ribbon, and not around his head. Seidl imbues the ensuing freak show with a naturalistic unease. The overweight women shed their clothes and wager to see who will be the first to trigger an erection from their nude gigolo. The filmmaker, working from a partly improvised screenplay he co-wrote with Veronika Franz (aka Mrs. Seidl) that reportedly kept changing as shooting progressed, dares you to look away, but I sure couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Seidl and Franz could have been content with merely chronicling these women’s codependent bond with the financially disadvantaged locals, but to their credit, they dig deeper, unearthing levels of nuance and heartache in Teresa that elevates the material above the button-pushing conversation piece it could have easily remained. Not that Paradise: Love isn’t that – its sensibility suggests a cross between early Jim Jarmusch and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant mode – but it’s also a profound, affecting character study that takes its time peeling off the layers of Teresa’s loneliness until we’re placed uncomfortably close to her despair. For adventurous filmgoers, it elicits some of the year’s biggest laughs…until it becomes the saddest movie you will see in an arthouse this summer. Seidl finds beauty in the grotesque, and in the process has made one of the best films of 2013.
Seidl is not the only auteur taking us on a woman’s intimate journey. The effervescent New York story Frances Ha shows the tender side of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding). He dials down the bitterness of his more recent efforts and delivers his best work since The Squid and the Whale. It’s as if Baumbach wanted to make a Woody Allen movie circa 1980 from the female perspective – it’s exquisitely shot in black and white by Sam Levy – and then fused Allen’s neuroses with Eric Rohmer’s battle-of-the-sexes wit.
Part of this film’s low-key charm resides in the adorably awkward figure of Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay and supplies a whimsical femme-driven energy to the story of the title character, an aspiring dancer who, at 27, still hasn’t been able to figure out how to get her post-college career off the ground. She works as an apprentice for a dance company (but she’s really more of a glorified office assistant) in the hopes that her boss Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise) will keep her on as a regular member. Her financial woes worsen after her best friend Sophie (Grace Sumner) opts to move out of their apartment. Oh, did I say Frances and her boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) parted ways? Their sort-of, kind-of breakup scene is a gem of comic timing and hard-earned wisdom.
For a feel-good romantic comedy, Frances Ha is awfully harsh to its leading lady, but that tough-love approach only makes it stronger. The film marks a return to thematic ground Baumbach covered in his 1995 debut feature Kicking and Screaming, which followed a circle of friends on the year after graduating from college; its quarterly structure mimicked a school year. What makes Frances Ha a more fully realized endeavor is the infectious optimism the protagonist keeps showing in the face of adversity. We all makes mistakes, some people more than other, Baumbach and Gerwig gently but firmly tell us. It’s how we pick ourselves up after our setbacks that ultimately tells the men from the boys. Or in this case, the independent-minded women from the ne’er-do-well bohemians. The film ends on a blissful note of understated joy that proclaims it’s the small victories in life that truly make the uphill climb worthwhile.
OK, so maybe you’re not in the mood to take in an arthouse title at the start of the summer movie season, but I implore you, if you’re willing to plunk down up to $15 a ticket at the multiplex for a big 3D title, make it anything but Epic. The latest animated feature from Chris Wedge shows the Ice Age maven in perfunctory, soul-deadening paycheck-pickup mode. What’s more apparent about the story of Mary Katherine (the voice of Amanda Seyfried), a teen who moves in with her crackpot scientist dad (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother, is not the competent animation, but its utter lack of imagination. It’s a chore to watch Wedge making all the pieces predictably fall into place as the skeptical M.K. finds out firsthand that her father’s claims of little people living in the forest happen to be true. Where’s the sense of awe and wonder Wedge and an A-list cast that also includes Josh Hutcherson, Beyoncé Knowles and Steven Tyler are working overtime to capture? It’s missing in action, and it pains me to say the worst offender here is Christoph Waltz, who voices the most generic villain I’ve seen in an animated feature in years. Like just about everything else in this rote good-versus-evil crowdpleaser, he vanishes from memory the instant the movie’s over.
Epic opens nationwide this Friday. That same day Frances Ha dances its way to your heart at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com) and Regal Cinemas South Beach. Also on Friday, the sublime Paradise: Love starts booking reservations at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com). The second and third entries in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope, are scheduled to open in South Florida within the next 12 months. Stay tuned.