Cannes 2012: 'Paradies: Liebe' + 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Several films at Cannes this year employ local nonprofessional actors in their casts, to effects that range from vaguely disappointing to magical.

Paradies: Liebe (Paradise: Love)

Director: Ulrich Seidl
Cast: Maria Hofstätter, Margarete Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux
Rated: NR
Studio: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH
Year: 2012
Cannes date: 2012-05-18 (Cannes Film Festival)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Lowell Landes, Levy Easterly
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Year: 2012
Cannes date: 2012-05-18 (Cannes Film Festival)

An early scene in Paradies: Liebe sets up both its and its protagonist's graceless relationship with Africa. Teresa (Margaret Tiesel), a flabby, aging German sex tourist in Kenya, spots a capuchin. Intent on taking its picture, she stomps onto her balcony and offers it a piece of banana. The monkey grabs the treat too fast and scurries away. Teresa’s relationships with “beach boys” -- young Kenyan men who sell souvenirs and seek sexual relationships with rich white female tourists, “sugar mamas” -- will unfold according to the same scenario, from hope to payment to disappointment.

Screening in competition at Cannes, Paradies: Liebe is the first in German director Ulrich Seidl’s promised trilogy about white women’s tourism. At the official press conference, Seidl offered his film as a realistic portrayal of the sex industry in Kenya -- all black men appearing in it are actual beach boys and the white actresses befriended German and Swiss sugar mamas to gather authentic source material -- shot entirely from a white female tourist’s point of view. It is, he suggested, a film about white women's longings.

In fact, Tiesel portrays Teresa with remarkable nuance, given that she performs in various states of undress throughout the film. Primarily, she conveys Teresa's loneliness: even on her birthday, her daughter neglects to return her phone call. She is also casually racist in conversations, initially shy and vulnerable in frank sex scenes with black men she hopes to make her lovers. In a great episode, she demonstrates for Munga (Peter Kazungu), her first conquest, the droopiness of her breasts: “Up” (in a bra), “down” (without), and again: “Up, down.” Once she abandons hope of developing an emotional bond with any of the boys, Teresa becomes crass and imperious when demanding exact pleasures in exchange for money. Paradies: Liebe offers a pointed, well-acted, and unflattering gaze at European women’s role in the industry, consumers in search of pleasure.

At the same time, as the movie compares a black prostitute to a monkey -- in Teresa's view, anyway. In its tight focus on Teresa's experience the film omits every detail of the beach boys’ lives, needs, and desires. It does suggest longings, in its representations of the hotel’s bright and sterile pool, paths, and benches, with round-the-clock uniformed black guards, in contrast with dingy native neighborhoods, dark corridors, and shifty black people, who seem to have no other occupation than wheedling money from white women. We don't see how they have come to now this as a means to other ends. Only once we glimpse Munga’s private life, when, after a breakup, Teresa comes across him on a public beach, where he gently walks with his wife, wearing a bright orange sundress and carrying her child. But the point here is Teresa's sense of loss: she attacks Munga physically and his wife verbally.

As if to underline our sense of Teresa's own dislocation and passion, the film offers vivid recurring shots: beach boys standing still on the sunny beach, the blue ocean behind them, behind a rope that demarcates hotel territory, where white women lay out on benches. Such compositions, gorgeous as they may be, also inspire our longing for something more. We might wish for a messier picture of Kenyan life, beyond Seidl’s familiar message about the unbridgeable gap between Europe and Africa.

Beasts of the Southern Wild offers a less conventional portrayal of a world immersed in poverty and risk, from inhabitants' points of view. Winner of Grand Jury prize at Sundance, New Orleans-based Benh Zeitlin's first feature met with enthusiastic applause during multiple screenings in Cannes' Un Certain Regard program. Six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, both first-time actors based in Louisiana) are determined to preserve their natural world, a tiny bayou community they call the Bathtub. "Me and my daddy, we stay right here," Hushpuppy narrates, while residents celebrate their sense of place and history, gathering regularly for fireworks, music, and drinking.

Hushpuppy's voiceover shapes our understanding of this place and history: she's particularly attentive to the animals who live alongside everyone else, domestic, feral, and magical animals. The Bathtub's loud, merry, shrimp-guzzling, frequently inebriated black and white inhabitants believe they can weather the hurricane that floods the island with salt water: they've seen storms before. Their real enemy is civilization, the man-built levee that does not allow the water to recede.

Seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes, the makeshift shacks, muddy pets, and rising water all acquire a kind of mystical, global significance, because, she repeats, in nature “everything is connected." By comparison, a hospital where aid workers try to catalogue and treat patients looks empty to her, like a “fish tank without water.”

Wallis, who was five when she first auditioned for the film, is unstoppable as Hushpuppy. The child insists she will find her missing mother. She can survive the hurricane, the death of creatures on the island from salt water, and her father’s illness. Interlaced with her story, sometimes fanciful, sometimes dreadful, is that of the aurochs, prehistoric animals that look like giant wild boars. In the makeshift spirit of the Bathtub, aurochs and melting ice were produced with miniature sets and dressed-up animals in a New Orleans studio set up in an abandoned firehouse. In Hushpuppy's telling, the beasts have escaped melting glaciers and are making their way toward her community, which remains resilient no matter what monsters threaten it.

Like Seidl, Zeitlin employed local nonprofessional actors in her film. And they're not alone at Cannes this year. Yousry Nasrallah worked with local inhabitants to make After the Battle, about Bedouin riders who attacked protesters in Tahrir Square last year. Even as Zeitlin's film is most obvious in its fictions, insisting on the magic realism of a six-year-old's vision, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels the authentic of the three.

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