CANNES, France -- There's sun, sand and sex in Cannes Film Festival entry "Paradise: Love" – and they add up to a grim and unsettling holiday movie.
Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's film depicts middle-aged European women at a Kenyan holiday resort seeking romance with young local men. It had its gala premiere Friday in Cannes, where it is one of 22 films competing for the Palme d'Or.
The movie stars Margarethe Tiesel as a 50-year-old Austrian whose search for love turns increasingly predatory. But the actress told journalists that she did not judge the character's behavior. She said the movie examined female loneliness and the way "people who are exploited at home travel abroad and become exploiters in turn."
Seidl, who looked at east-west friction in Europe in his 2007 Cannes entry "Import/Export," plans the film as the first in a trilogy about modern tourism.
The director views his European and African characters with the detached eye of an anthropologist. Seidl began as a documentary maker, and even on his fiction features shoots without scripted dialogue and mixes professional and nonprofessional actors.
"Paradise: Love" had a mixed reception from critics in Cannes. Some accused it of reproducing the exploitation of Africans that it claims to examine – or, like the Hollywood Reporter, simply found it "a psychologically empty wallow."
Others praised the bravery of the actors, who are required to strip naked, physically and emotionally, as they enact the characters' sexual negotiations.
"It wasn't easy, it's true," Tiesel said. "It was a challenge to surpass yourself, to go beyond your comfort zone. But in the beginning Ulrich said to me: `Nothing will happen that you don't want to happen.' So that reassured me."
The film's title is ironic: this is no paradise, and there is little love. But Seidl rejected the suggestion he is a pessimist.
"As a filmmaker my goal is to depict things as honestly as possible," he said. "To deal with social systems, to show them as realistically as possible. Negative, positive, pessimistic, whatever – that's not really the point here."