As with Claire Denis’s Chocolat, Laurent Cantet’s Heading South probes turbulent, neo-colonialist interpersonal dynamics via the romantic relationships between older, wealthy white women and young, subservient black men, here embodied by middle-aged sexual tourist femmes and their nubile, dark-skinned beaus in volatile 1970s Haiti. It’s a subject that, on the surface, exhibits little in common with the director’s previous, workplace-related Human Resources and Time Out, though closer inspection reveals Cantet’s latest (based on stories by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière) to be a kindred thematic spirit to its predecessors, preoccupied by labor transactions, people’s longing for unattainable mastery over forces beyond their control, and the subsequent facades they assume as a means of compensating for said powerlessness.
“It’s hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one,” says a woman to Albert (Lys Ambroise) as he awaits the airport arrival of Savannah resident Brenda (Karen Young), the newest guest at Hotel Petite Anse, a beachside resort where foreigners pay to enjoy the pleasures of native flesh. It’s a statement that applies to everyone luxuriating beneath the southern hemisphere’s sky, yet most piercingly with regard to the tug-of-warring trio of quixotic Brenda, luscious Haitian Legba (Ménothy Cesar), with whom Brenda shared a momentous tryst years earlier, and domineering Bostonian Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), who also covets the indigenous hunk and resents the appearance of her new competitor.
Cantet situates the women’s passive-aggressive contest for Legba’s devotion in an environment defined by capitalist commerce, where love, sex, security and companionship are all commoditized by interloping Westerners and endangered by external market forces (racially charged tensions, Baby Doc Duvalier’s street patrolling thugs). Theirs is a highly politicized ménage-a-trois fraught with complications involving issues of servitude, privilege, abuse and manipulation, though unlike its female vacationers, Heading South shrewdly avoids exoticizing not only the black gigolos who ply their trade on sandy shores and in cabana beds, but also the Port-au-Prince slums from which Legba hails and where the film, in its only significant misstep, eventually ventures.
With every one of their communiqués colored by economic or social disparity, Cantet’s three protagonists all tacitly agree to be both exploiter and exploited, readily engaging in behavior that’s mutually beneficial (i.e. Ellen and Brenda receive emotional and carnal attention, Legba monetary and maternal succor) and yet fundamentally predicated on irreconcilable and potentially disastrous inequalities. And though their reasons for this financial/romantic arrangement are superficially divergent, what gradually emerges is a portrait of shared desires for supremacy over messy, unhappy lives which—outside of the supposedly safe confines of their inviting ocean-set resort, which the director shoots like a glistening paradise—seem hopelessly unmanageable.
Such desires are, by story’s end, no more sustainable than is the central, tempestuous threesome, with Ellen and Brenda’s rivalry finally nullified, during the latter two’s trip to a local market, by a callous world they cannot escape. It’s during this third act, even more than in vivid but clumsy narrative digressions involving Legba’s soccer playing and dealings with a former girlfriend, that Heading South becomes slightly too overt with its socio-political concerns as well as somewhat constrained by functional plot developments. Still, Cantet’s easygoing and intimate direction is by and large so assured, and his gorgeous milieu so entrancing, that these missteps seem far less important than Pierre Milon’s gloriously unruffled, palm tree-dappled cinematography and Rampling’s tightly wound performance as Ellen, a resentful old maid whose brazen protestations in favor of hedonism mask a deep-rooted yearning for amorous affection. In an early, telling conversation, Legba casually asks Ellen if she’d like to know his weight preferences for lovers, to which the grand dame playfully remarks, “No dear. Leave me with my illusions.” It’s a simultaneous request for ignorance and act of denial that characterizes the imprudent, self-centered behavior of the idyll’s American inhabitants—and also, ultimately, comes to epitomize Heading South’s acute portrait of the willful blindness that helps foster such inequitable colonialist conditions.
In a dirt-poor country where life is cheap, there is a local saying that those who grow too tall in Haiti are cut down; the exceptions, of course, are tourists.
Observing the tourism with profound distaste is the hotel's courtly, discreet headwaiter, Albert (Lys Ambroise). In a film constructed around four shattering monologues addressed to the camera, Albert's is the only Haitian voice to speak from the heart and what he says is chilling. Descended from a family of patriots who fought the Americans in the 1915 occupation, he harbors an implacable loathing of the white visitors. His grandfather, he says, believed "the white man was an animal." Albert adds, "If he knew I was a waiter for Americans, he would die of shame." Today, he declares, whites wield an even more dangerous weapon than cannons — their dollars: "Everything they touch turns to garbage."
How perilous life is for ordinary Haitians under Mr. Duvalier is suggested in the movie's opening scene, in which Albert, waiting to pick up a tourist at the airport, is approached by a Haitian woman who points to her beautiful 15-year-old daughter and pleads with him to take her because "being beautiful and poor in this country, she doesn't stand a chance; they won't think twice of killing me to grab her."
The other three characters who bare their souls are Ellen and two fellow sex tourists, Brenda (Karen Young) and Sue (Louise Portal). Brenda, 48, is a high-strung, Valium-popping woman from Savannah, Ga.; she is returning to the resort three years after she visited with her now-ex-husband and had sex with the 15-year-old Legba, who gave her her first orgasm. She has been obsessed with him ever since. Sue, a levelheaded, good-hearted French Canadian who runs a warehouse in Montreal, has a Haitian boyfriend she adores, but she knows full well that in any other place the relationship would be laughable.
With a screenplay in French, English and a smattering of Creole by Mr. Cantet and Robin Campillo, "Heading South" is a beautifully written, seamlessly directed film with award-worthy performances by Ms. Rampling and Ms. Young. As Ellen and Brenda compete for Legba's love, both imagine that they play a larger role in his life than they actually do. The little we see of Legba away from the resort suggests a complicated past. When a gunman goes after him, the women imagine they are the immediate cause of his troubles. They are, but only to the extent that Legba conspicuously stands out in the flashy clothes Brenda buys him. As much as Ellen and Brenda think they understand him and the state of fear that grips Haiti, they are ultimately clueless.
At first glance, "Heading South" seems to be a departure for the director of "Human Resources" and "Time Out," two of the more critically acclaimed French films in recent years. But it continues Mr. Cantet's incisive examination of money and class in modern society. In "Human Resources," a French blue-collar family is torn apart when the son of an assembly-line worker joins the same company's white-collar management team, and father and son find themselves on opposite sides of a picket line.
The desperate protagonist of "Time Out" loses the high-paying job on which his self-esteem depends and convinces his family he has landed even better work, while drifting around in his car and living on money borrowed from friends that he pretends to invest. In "Heading South," money also rules. The romantic spell that Legba exerts over Ellen and Brenda is bought and paid for.
Mr. Cantet's film is too sophisticated to demonize these women, whose relationships with their young lovers are more tender and nourishing than overtly crass. For all its political acuity, this great film recognizes and respects the complexity of its memorable, fully realized characters.
Opens today in Manhattan
Directed by Laurent Cantet; written (in English and French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Cantet and Robin Campillo, based on short stories by Dany Laferrière; director of photography, Pierre Milon; edited by Mr. Campillo; art direction, Franckie Diago; produced by Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta and Simon Arnal; released by Shadow Distribution. Running time: 105 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Charlotte Rampling (Ellen), Karen Young (Brenda), Louise Portal (Sue), Ménothy Cesar (Legba), Lys Ambroise (Albert) and Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz (Eddy).
NYT Critic’s Pick
StarsCharlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Louise Portal, Ménothy Cesar, Lys Ambroise
Running Time1h 48m
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Last updated: Nov 2, 2017