CANNES, France (Reuters) - Just who exploits and who is exploited in the sex tourism industry is the question asked in director Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise Love", a powerful and unsettling exploration of female loneliness and economic imbalance in Africa.
Called "Paradies: Liebe", the German-language movie is in competition at the Cannes film festival and had its world premiere on Friday.
The Austrian director chose as his subject white European women in their 50s who go on holiday in Kenya where they meet so-called "Beach Boys," young men who become their lovers.
The women, past their physical prime and disappointed by past relationships at home, seek sexual fulfilment and a sense of feeling loved.
The men, who have few job prospects other than selling trinkets on the beach, expect money or gifts in exchange, if not the promise of a better life in Europe.
The women dream of finding someone who accepts them as they are and their lovers dream of getting ahead. The clash of intentions allows the film to paint a bleak picture of people's ability to communicate.
"Hakuna matata," or "no problem," might be the phrase the beach boys like to repeat, but the master-slave relationships create a tense atmosphere in the beach front paradise.
A form of colonialism is alive and well here, as the young black men struggle to please and to be paid.
One arresting image is of a group of young men hovering around a line of beach chairs on which the women sun themselves. The men watch attentively just metres away, hoping to be noticed, but they are segregated by a rope barrier.
Paradise Love is the first film in a trilogy that took Seidl four years to shoot. The three features tell separate stories about three women from the same family.
Seidl shot the film without a script, relying on the ability of actors to improvise around scenes sketched out in advance.
He spent a year and a half in the editing room before realizing that the three different plot lines would not hold together, leading to his choice of a trilogy.
Lead actress Margarethe Tiesel, a strong early contender for the best actress prize for a tour de force performance as Teresa, sees female loneliness at the heart of the tortured and artificial relationships between unfulfilled white women and young African men, many of whom are already married.
"The people who are at home, exploited, travel abroad and become exploiters in turn," Tiesel told a news conference. "I don't judge these women, I understand them fully and what leads them to this situation, the loneliness they struggle with."
That loneliness is exacerbated by disappointment, as the audience sees each young man that Teresa meets eventually pressure her for money, dispelling her hopes that they could love her.
In one sequence, Teresa tries to teach her awkward new lover, Munga, how to caress her breasts with tenderness.
"No, I'm not an animal. A cat, you know you pet them like this. Do it like this. With feeling. Do you understand? With feeling," she instructs him.
Seidl cast real-life beach boys in the film, a decision which adds to a sense of unsparing reality that is often hard to watch on the screen.
"He had experience with European women. He was authentic," Seidl said of the actor who plays Munga, Peter Kuzungu.
(Reporting By Alexandria Sage)