On vacation, with benefits

Times Staff Writer

ONCE upon a time, in the pre-AIDS late ‘70s, Western tourists traveled to Haiti to avail themselves of sun, fun and whatever young, handsome, hungry subject of the brutal Duvalier regime happened to strike their fancy. Some of those tourists were women “of a certain age,” as the mincing euphemism goes -- or, as the ladies who patronize the rustic beach resort in Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South” refer to themselves, “women over 40.” Never mind that some of the characters, like the one played by Charlotte Rampling, haven’t seen that particular birthday in two decades. In the film, as in some sectors of society, the idea that women persist in existing past young adulthood remains a delicate subject to be dealt with discreetly and carefully, as though inquiring into an unpleasant odor.

That’s no swipe against the leonine Rampling, who at 60 (and that’s an all-natural 60) is as terrifyingly beautiful as ever. Nor is it meant to suggest that Cantet doesn’t get it. If anything, he over-gets it, treating the sex life of middle-aged women -- that dreary, uniform monolith -- in a kid-gloved, rueful manner familiar to anyone who has noticed how the interpreters on NPR always seem to sound more wistful and forlorn than the foreigners they’re overdubbing.

Fortunately, he’s more specifically interested in the dynamics of economic, historical and cultural power, a subject far richer in salient generalizations. If the premise that Ellen (Rampling), a Wellesley French professor; Brenda (Karen Young), a Savannah divorcee; and Sue (Louise Portal), a Canadian factory manager, have permanently surpassed the age of lovability back home comes across as mawkish and more than a little suspect, their relationship to their young Haitian lovers is a metaphorical goldmine.

Based on stories by Haitian writer Dany Laferriere, “Heading South” takes place during Brenda’s brief sojourn in Haiti. Before she enters, we’re shown a scene that illustrates the poverty and chaos of the island where she is to spend her cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Albert (Lys Ambroise), the hotel’s courtly, middle-aged manager, is waiting for Brenda when he’s approached by a woman who offers to “give” him her 15-year-old daughter so that he’ll protect her, because “being poor and beautiful in this country, she doesn’t stand a chance.”


The young girl is not the only one. Brenda has come back to Haiti looking for Legba (Menothy Cesar), an 18-year-old boy she met three years earlier while on vacation with her ex-husband. As Brenda explains into the camera later, she and her husband “adopted” the boy, inviting him to dine with them and marveling at his capacity to eat, which she seems to equate with adolescent vigor rather than hunger. Brenda and Legba spent a day together on a secluded beach, where she experienced her first orgasm at the age of 45. Now 48, she’s back for seconds. Immediately upon arrival, she goes looking for him and finds him lolling on the beach. But it turns out he’s already spoken for.

Legba’s latest sugar mama is Ellen, an imperious queen bee who might have served as the model for Tilda Swinton’s character in “The Beach.” In her monologue -- all the principal characters deliver one, with the notable exception of Legba -- she talks about her contempt for her husband-hunting students and Boston men in general, whom she’s had no luck landing despite scouring “every bar in the city.” (Somehow, you can see why this strategy wouldn’t have worked.) Ellen is a big proponent of free love -- or, if not free, exactly, then at least non-exclusive and inexpensive -- but she bristles at Brenda’s way of breaking the resort’s unspoken rules. Brenda flagrantly confuses purchased sex with love, mooning shamelessly over Legba and eventually wooing him away from Ellen with expensive clothes and invitations to dinner.

Such invitations prove problematic for Albert, as the resort’s policy is to not allow escorts to eat at the restaurant. His monologue, which comes late in the film, turns out to be the most powerful and surprising in the film. The son of patriots who fought the American invasion in the early part of last century, he was brought up to hate whites, especially Americans. His grandfather considered whites subhuman -- “If he knew I was a waiter for Americans, he would die of shame.” Legba, meanwhile, has captured the attention of more than just the ladies. He soon finds himself pursued by the vicious Tontons Macoutes, or secret police, for reasons not entirely clear. The reasons don’t matter -- he has made himself conspicuous more times than is safe in an environment of repressive terror. The fact that Legba is fawned over by tourists and admired by his neighborhood friends is reason enough for him to start watching his back.

Cantet has some interesting insights into the hedonics of Third World tourism, best illustrated by the surreal tension between scenes of life in the resort bubble, where the women regress to adolescence and reveal the depths (or shallows) of their self-involvement, and the streets of Port-au-Prince where Legba lives his real life. But in choosing female Western characters over male ones, he has muddied the water. Lonely, bitter, insecure and clearly unstable, the women are meant to level the emotional playing field and add depth to what is, at heart, a story about the exploitation of poor nations by rich and powerful ones. But they wind up being too bitter and unstable to elicit much sympathy. Legba’s story remains a mystery because, as is immediately clear, his benefactors aren’t remotely interested in it. Cantet might have let us in on it anyway, even if the story requires that they stay in the dark. But instead we’re left with a heap of phony weltschmertz from a handful of straw characters. Ultimately, the only voice worth listening to in “Heading South” is Albert’s, and he’s too much of a gentleman to spill his guts.



‘Heading South’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Shadow Distribution presents a co-production of Haut et Court, Les Films Seville, France 3 Cinema and StudioCanal. Directed by Laurent Cantet. Written by Laurent Cantet and Robin Campillo. Based on three short stories by Dany Laferriere. Director of photography Pierre Milon. Editor Robin Campillo. Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes. In English and French with English subtitles.


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