Vers le sud

(Heading South, France/Canada - 2005)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Charlote Rampling, Karen Young, Louise Portal, Menothy Cesar, Lys Ambroise
Genre: Drama
Director: Laurent Cantet
Screenplay: Laurent Cantet & Robin Campillo from Dany Laferriere's short stories & novel la chair du maitre
Cinematography: Pierre Milon
Composer: -
Runtime: 108 minutes

Though considered a huge thematic break for the pair of director/co-writer Laurent Cantet and editor/co-writer Robin Campillo, all the focus remains on the workday with labor relationships in a globalized economic world remaining key and prompting everyone to wear oft contradictory masks. The management son in Human Resources supported his striking father even though his father didn’t support the strike, while the fired worker in Time Out pretended to not only still be working, but have attained new international travel responsibilities. Heading South is less overtly political and more well balanced than Cantet & Campillo’s preceding films. The primary difference is everyone is a victim of some combination of age, society, finance, circumstance, and opportunity, rendering the exploitation of sex tourism far closer to mutual. The atmosphere is far less formal, but the story remains about the damage the bosses do to the workers. The startling shift is the focus is on these “bosses” rather than their “employees”, perhaps because they have disparate and divergent stories while the marginally educated gigolo in 1970’s Haiti is so unbelievably poor and devoid of opportunity he practically lacks an ethical means of earning decent money in an honest fashion.

The over 40 women were all hurt in various ways by societies where their peers have ceased to be interested in them, prompting them to venture to a place so impoverished their far from extraordinary funds can purchase anyone they desire. But while financially attractive, despite their illusions they can’t purchase what they desire. They couldn’t win or earn love at home, and in Haiti they can only rent the veneer of it. In different ways both the women and the youthful escorts are unguarded, desperate, and needy.

The first portion of the film focuses on both sides fawning over each other in a manner that makes us feel eerily voyeuristic, largely because we realize all whites are implicit in enslaving the third world. As the film progresses the women become increasingly repellent and revolting, yet that doesn’t stop their story from being told in a classy and heartfelt manner. We can’t hate them because they have needs that aren’t being met elsewhere and are trying to be good for everyone, even if their selfishness blinds them to certain truths as in a sense they hope something, anything will. We can only hope they realize their goal is unattainable; prostitution doesn’t morph into love, but if they adjusted their expectations at least everyone would at be better protected emotionally.

Depicting the women’s perspective allows us to comprehend how little foreigners understand the natives without having to complain or come right out and say it. Queen bee Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) and depressed drama queen Brenda (Karen Young) both believe themselves to be compassionate and benevolent buddies of their favorite stud Legba (Menothy Cesar), white saviors who will guide and protect him as a good mother should. Passive-aggressive Ellen convinces herself she’s allowing Legba to have his freedom, but regularly unleashes her bitter words and asserts her dominant will upon everyone. Meanwhile, naive well-meaning Brenda deludes herself into believing her desires are acceptable if not admirable since it took her 45 years to achieve her first and only orgasm.

Much of their point in venturing to Haiti is to be left to their illusions. Chubby Sue (Louise Portal) is good at it, she didn’t want to get married at home, and her non-committal nature serves her well abroad. As far as the women are concerned all is good in the Garden of Eden, except an entire island full of young hunks manages to only result in petty and jealous Ellen and Brenda battling over the same one. Unfortunately, as much as they blunder we are still left with the typical white fantasy where the threat to the natives comes from the natives themselves rather than the meddling interlopers. It’s thus somewhat surprising that this otherwise certainly honest and thought provoking work was written by Haitian Dany Lafferiere, who being born in 1953 probably came of age around the height of Haiti’s sex tourism. This aspect does allows for some well deserved criticism of Baby Doc Duvalier’s brutal rule, notable for the misappropriation of funds, but nonetheless is somewhat frustrating because an undeveloped backstory contrives to take precedent over the actual sex tourism theme.

The film’s primary quality is the audience is allowed to read between the lines and imagine. The characters prove to be different from what they say they are, want others to believe, probably even believe themselves. Sex, race, politics, colonialism, imperialism, consumerism, escape, need, money, aging, exploitation and the exploiters blindness to it are among the topics, but most are indirectly incorporated to avoid the usual pitfall of announcing everything to the stooges in the theater. It’s subtle enough to be disconcerting rather than moralizing, salacious, or dope opera-esque.

Charlotte Rampling is typically tremendous. She’s burning inside yet so outwardly relaxed we believe she has no idea how controlling she is and simply believes someone (always) has to step up and do what needs to be done. Underrated Karen Young holds her own with the screen legend, impressing as a childish emotionally insecure woman who has enough ups and downs to get written off as batty by those who tire of her moods. The women all have their faults, many of which are no doubt brought upon them by neglect. The film thankfully doesn’t ask us to like or dislike them, but rather shows us their humanity: they need attention, tenderness, love, sex, and a sense of worth. The thing is it doesn’t show us these things at the expense of the Haitians. We see what Legba and proud and disapproving maitre d’ Albert (Lys Ambroise) need, they simply have even less chance of getting it than the aging North American women because they’re trapped by the destitute nature of their country.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *