America doesn’t have quite the same legacy of colonialism as, say, England. That is not to say that we haven’t, at various times in history, supported, occupied or otherwise controlled ground not permanently attached to our contiguous 48. (And it isn’t, in any way, intended to deflect claims that we may very well be trapped in the long and arduous process of doing exactly that in today’s Middle East.) Nonetheless, our nation has never maintained a globe-spanning empire, and our citizens have never suffered the inevitable ennui that happens when that empire begins to crumble. (Just ask the Brits, the French or the ancient Carthaginians.)
As a result, Heading South, the new film from Frenchie Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out), may have a tad more impact on the continent than here in America. ... Or not, depending on how deep you’re willing to pursue the film’s central metaphor.
Heading South takes us to the island nation of Haiti in the late ’70s, a good decade before the ouster of president for life/brutal dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Somewhat stable at the time, the island served as a cheap and luxurious vacation spot for folks from around the globe (so long as they weren’t too picky about socioeconomic and political issues). As Heading South informs us, the island was also a prime destination for horny, middle-aged widows/divorcees, who found it easy to secure the company of dark-skinned local studs. It wasn’t exactly sex tourism, but it was darn close.
Our guide through this fading postcolonial world is fortysomething Georgia peach Brenda (Karen Young, probably best know as Adriana’s heartless FBI handler on “The Sopranos”). Brenda is returning to the sun-kissed island where, three years earlier, she engaged in an adulterous affair with an impoverished teenaged Haitian named Legba. Now widowed, Brenda is back and looking to cool a recurrent strain of jungle fever. Think of this as How Stella Got Her Groove Back, only without the feel-good romance and the Whoopi Goldberg one-liners. Plus, everybody--including the Americans--speaks French, further enforcing the “European-ness” of the production.
Upon arriving in Haiti, Brenda is whisked past the sprawling slums and armed military of Port au Prince to the sandy beaches and whitewashed cottages of an upscale resort. The insulated locale caters almost exclusively to single women on the verge of menopause. They can be seen every day hanging out on the beach in the company of well-toned, half-naked local gigolos. It is here that Brenda immediately runs into her former fling Legba (Ménothy Cesar), who is currently being coddled by summering sugar mama Ellen (Charlotte Rampling, still beguiling at 60). Brenda befriends the brash Ellen, but mostly seems intent on jockeying for Legba’s attentions.
Cantet is making a clear metaphor about privileged nations and how they treat third-world populations. The men here are all playthings for the (relatively) well-to-do matrons. Ignoring the poverty and political strife happening just beyond the palm trees, these women are interested in nothing other than satisfying their own erogenous needs. The impoverished locals, meanwhile, are smart enough to exploit their position, acting as lovers, confidants and spoiled children, all in an attempt to scam as much money as possible before the summer tourist season comes to an end.
This troubled cardboard paradise begins to collapse, of course, as Brenda and Ellen spar in a polite, passive-agressive manner for the affections of Legba. Brenda has fooled herself into thinking she’s been in love with Legba all these years. Ellen, meanwhile, acts as though she’s above such petty emotions--even though she harbors a deep and secret desire for the young Haitian. Eventually, some ill-defined intrigues in Legba’s “real” life threaten to thrust Haiti’s brewing troubles right into the lap of these self-deluding tourists.
Cantet introduces each of his major characters by having them participate in documentary-style monologues, explaining their history and feelings directly toward the camera lens. Though this “confessional”-style storytelling has firmly entered the modern lexicon courtesy of countless reality shows, it’s an oddly self-conscious and stagey gimmick to insert into an otherwise straightforward drama. Even stranger is the fact that the film’s linchpin, Legba, is denied his own monologue, leaving the exploited islanders largely voiceless.
The script, based on Haitian writer Dany Laferrière’s short story collection La Chair du Maître, is all very understated. The sexual content, though blunt, isn’t all that explicit. Emotions never boil over, and the background setting is still six or seven years away from revolution. More’s the pity. A little bitchslapping and a bit of gunplay might have enlivened things. Cantet, however, is more interested in gender politics than actual politics. Heading South does strive for a larger point about racism and economic exploitation, but the film leaves that relatively unspoken. Instead, it runs out its time as a well-crafted (if emotionally muted) melodrama about sad, middle-aged women and their quest for sex--a quest which barely masks a desperate, fundamental need for love.