Port au Princes
Three Women Head For Sexual Fun in the Sun Where the Boys Are For Sale
The conflation of middle-aged female lust for hot Haitian boys with American neo-colonialism suggests that director Laurent Cantet is pulling a Catherine Breillat with Heading South. But instead of Breillat’s shock tactics, Cantet--best known for muted class-war movies such as Time Out--offers the rare, thoughtful movie that possibly suffers from being too thoughtful.
With a matter-of-fact tone that signals the director’s aversion to judgment, South takes place at a gorgeous Haitian beach resort, where three women--Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), Brenda (Karen Young), and Sue (Louise Portal)--are taking in the sun and paid-for sexual favors of the local young strapping/impoverished black boys. While quickly proving that women circling 50 from various distances while also enjoying barely legal action is just as unpleasant as males doing the same, Cantet quickly addresses the why of the women’s sexual adventures in a series of monologues.
We learn that British Ellen is a bitter, selectively racist Wellesley English lit teacher with a guarded core of vulnerable, mangled-beyond-recognition romanticism. Brenda, a married Georgia housewife, is returning to the resort after experiencing her first orgasm at age 45 three years prior with the now 18-year-old Legba (sloe-eyed, crazy-charismatic nonpro actor Ménothy Cesar), also the object of Ellen’s desires. Sue, meanwhile, is a single Canadian using the sexual revolution--the movie is set in the ’70s--as a way to salve her loneliness.
Ellen is all about control--micromanaging the etiquette minutia of the other women’s adventures and her own desire. Brenda is an exposed nerve of need so raw you know it can come to no good. None of them seems to have any real idea of the exploitive nature of their idyll or, in particular, why Albert (Lys Ambrose), a refined, diffident Haitian who runs the resort, is so willing to put up with their shenanigans.
But in Albert’s monologue, we find out. He’s the grandson of patriots who fought in America’s opportunistic war against Haiti in 1915, which would eventually lead to the ascendance of monstrous dictators like Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. And so, Albert’s self-control is the result of loathing--"Everything they touch turns to garbage," he nearly spits--mixed with the need for self-survival.
As Ellen and Brenda come to increasingly heated loggerheads over their boy’s attentions, Legba himself gets no monologue. What we learn of him comes in glances--an encounter with one of Duvalier’s sadistic death squads, an argument with a Haitian ex being kept by a white man, a visit to his mother to share the spoils of his whoredom.
One assumes that obscuring Legba’s relationship to his own life is Cantet’s way of showing how the women view him--a prized object of desire, but an object nonetheless. But before doting on this crucial aspect further, some bending over backward about the performances here is due.
With her late-career resurgence in François Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Under the Sand, it’s tempting to take Rampling’s brilliance for granted, but her work again surprises for its depth and shading. The lithe frame may be a bit more filled out, but the slitted, pellucid gaze is as fascinatingly liable to shift from icy haughtiness to smolder to irresistible fragility as ever.
That noted, the real star--and thematic point person--is Young. Sleekly muscular in the mode of people who tone up by existing in perpetual anxiety, her Brenda covers an arc that ranges from spaced-out innocence to increasingly delusional and--importantly--desperate embrace of an imagined Haiti where rules of racial demarcation don’t apply, where she can finally dance. It’s almost unbearable, the way this poor wreck witlessly exploits her boy and never realizes what she’s doing. It’s remarkable work, and a more succinct example of passive racism you couldn’t ask for.
But again, it leads back to the mystery that is Legba. While the exclusion of his backstory--and the suffering of the other Haitians--is a formalistically nervy trope, it also saps the movie of what should be a devastating denouement, where a horrid dawning awareness causes one woman to embark on a literal mission of erotic imperialism. It doesn’t stop Heading South from being the must-see it is, but you can’t help feeling that something--or rather, someone--is missing. And as well-intentioned as Cantet’s movie is, it suffers for it.