"Love is a somewhat loose and ironic term in the title of this film..."

As the 2013 Cannes Film Festival only recently came to an end, we're still playing catch up on the previous year's event, finally welcoming a theatrical release to Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love, a film that was in competition last Spring. The first of an unofficial trilogy, we delve into the bizarre world of sex tourism.

Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) is a lonely single mother, desperately seeking a holiday on her own and away from her rebellious teenage daughter. Flying out from Austria to Kenya, she connects with her old friend Teresas (Inge Maux) who introduces her to a whole new world, where middle aged European women meet young Kenyan men to indulge in a relationship whereby the former receives affection and sexual relations, and the latter is, though unofficially, paid for their services, with donations expected towards their poverty stricken livelihoods. However Teresa is expecting more than just sex, and when she meets Munga (Peter Kazungu) she seems determined to find true love in an otherwise loveless environment.

There is just something rather uncomfortable about this title, with a handful of scenes you can barely watch. It's the way these women ogle over these younger Kenyan men, and how the latter perform for them like show ponies, merely hoping to make some money at the end of it to provide for their family. There is one excruciating scene where we witness four Austrians watching as a young man strips for them, and they're just laughing at him. There is something horribly animalistic about it all, and disturbingly patronising too, while there is a undercurrent of imperialism. The uncomfortable nature of this film is reversed also, in the way Teresa is hassled by the locals trying to sell goods. Though meaning well, it's intimidating, particularly for a woman on her own.

There are some funny points however, born out of the awkwardness from moments lost in translation, as the small little quirks and idiosyncrasies that derive from the naturalistic relationships provide the film with some light relief. The way the tourists and the locals interact with one another is brilliantly judged and sometimes so uncouth you simply can't help but laugh. However you do struggle to connect with the characters, and although finding empathy with Teresa, it seems that within this sex tourism culture, everybody is just out to exploit everybody else. People completely lose sight of their morals and compromise their dignity when doing so. The men pretend to be in love to make some money, while the women play up to it for sexual relations. Everybody just ends up hurting everybody else and it's this theme that takes precedence over the story, which on the whole makes for a perturbing and poignant watch, with the overriding feeling of seediness prevalent.

That said, Tiesel is just astonishing as our lead, with an incredibly realistic performance, and one so strong this could be taken for a documentary. Such a performance makes the story feel so organic too, as though improvised, with what appears to be a very free running narrative. Tiesel has no inhibitions neither, and that is certainly required for this role, while this also adds to the vulnerability of the character. It's also tragic how she thinks she is discovering true love, yet failing to appreciate just how artificial an environment this is. We always remain sympathetic with her, even if she does show herself up at times, getting carried away with it all.

Love is a somewhat loose and ironic term in the title of this film, and it's certainly intriguing to see what Seidl is going to do with the theme of  'faith' in the second part. Though at times perhaps too realistic and thus ignoring the storytelling aspect, if the next two instalments within this trilogy are anything like this, then they are must-sees.