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Posts Tagged ‘Ulrich Seidl’

My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

The first in a trilogy of films, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2012) is the third movie I’ve seen this year — after Rebelle and Inch’Allah (also 2012) — that compassionately bears witness to suffering in the Third World, though it differs significantly from the other two in terms of where it goes looking for human misery. Rather than asking viewers to empathize with the plight of child soldiers in the Congo or Palestinians in the occupied territories, Seidl’s film trains its unblinking gaze on a middle-aged Austrian woman, Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), who travels to a beachside resort in Kenya where the other guests are all white chicks on the prowl for black dick. To be sure, the film is strongly critical of the women’s neocolonial attitudes (in one scene, Teresa and another tourist talk about a bartender literally as if he were a piece of meat, likening the colour and texture of his skin to a blood sausage), but over the course of the movie, one gradually comes to see Teresa as a victim of the young Kenyan men who profit from her loneliness.

Accordingly, the film portrays her in a largely sympathetic light, lest it seem that she deserves to be swindled. A single mother who works with the mentally disabled, Teresa doesn’t go to Kenya with any intention of engaging in sex tourism, and certainly it’s not difficult to empathize with her desire to feel attractive and loved. It’s therefore painful to watch her being groped by a man whore, Gabriel (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua), who takes her to a love motel and then tries to keep her from leaving when she changes her mind. The movie contrasts this episode with a later sequence in which another young man, Munga (Peter Kazunga), takes her back to his place where she patiently shows him how she wants to be touched. For a while, Teresa is able to convince herself that Munga is sincere in his affection for her, but eventually it becomes apparent that he’s only interested in her money as well, and after fleecing her, he suddenly disappears. So when Teresa hunts him down and assaults him, one feels that he’s only getting what he deserves. If the film had ended there, one might infer that Teresa had learned her lesson, but instead she gets hoodwinked again by a different man before resigning herself to paying for sex, which leaves her feeling even more unsatisfied. This isn’t exactly the feel-good movie of the year, but it does have a certain grim fascination.

Similarly, Chantal Akerman’s La Folie Almayer (2011) is a bold and singular film that I admire more than love. Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel, which I haven’t read, the movie opens with a middle-aged man, Chen (Solida Chan), walking into a bar where Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo) is lip-syncing a Dean Martin song on stage while several girls dance behind him. At the end of the song, Chen appears behind Daïn and stabs him in the chest. He then drags the body off camera as all but one of the girls flee in panic, leaving Nina (Aurora Marion) alone on stage. She continues dancing for a few moments as if in a trance before turning to the camera and singing Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” The rest of the movie is told in flashback, showing the events that led up to this point, but it’s never explained why Chen stabs Daïn. Or more precisely, rather than explaining his actions in psychological terms, the flashback scenes contextualize the murder and Nina’s singing in terms of what the characters represent.

As in her previous literary adaptation, La Captive (2000), Akerman brings Conrad’s novel into the present without actually modernizing it. Early on, Nina’s grandfather, Lingard (Marc Barbé), shows up at her parents’ bungalow in the jungle and tells her father, Almayer (Stanislaw Merhar), that he’s taking the girl away so she can get “a white girl’s education.” (Nina is half-Malaysian, which makes her an outcast at the school she’s sent to.) Years later, when Lingard kicks the bucket, there’s no one left to pay her tuition fees, and Nina returns to the jungle. In one scene, she expresses enthusiasm for the local music but Almayer dismisses it as rubbish compared with the great European composers. He tries to hum a few bars of Chopin, but having lived in the jungle for so many years, he can no longer remember. It’s only after embarking on a scheme to make enough money to send Nina to Europe, which briefly rouses him from his decrepitude, that he can recall the tune. However, Nina soon forgets the words to “Ave Verum Corpus,” which she learned at school, and subsequently rejects her European heritage by running off with Daïn, a guerilla living in the jungle. But in the end (or rather the beginning), Daïn’s murder — committed by Lingard’s faithful manservant, Chen — brings her back to white society. In short, the movie defines the characters solely according to their race and environment.

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