Heading South (15)

Love in a hot climate
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The Independent Culture

French director Laurent Cantet made his name with two films about work - shopfloor drama Human Resources and Time Out, about an executive cracking up. Now Cantet turns to leisure, with a film about North American women in search of the perfect island break - sun, sand, sex and cocktails. Fear not, Cantet hasn't sold out to the commercial lure of the summer chick-flick: Heading South is no "Bridget Jones Goes Caribbean", but arguably his most politically incisive film yet.

The subject this time is sexual tourism, and the tourists are middle-aged women looking (and paying) for the attentions of young black men at a beachside hotel resort. It could be Jamaica today - you've read the magazine articles, seen the TV documentaries - but the setting is Haiti in the late 1970s, under the violent dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Far from making the film any less urgent, the historical setting introduces an unbearable tension: the hotel is a seemingly idyllic sealed bubble, while the Haiti beyond its gates is harsh and treacherous, in a way that the holidaymakers only discover at the end of the film.

Based on three stories by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, Heading South focuses on three women. Brenda (Karen Young) arrives as a seeming newcomer, but she's visited the hotel before with her husband, and is now back in search of something: the pleasure she discovered with a teenage Haitian boy, Legba (the affecting, curiously changeful Ménothy César). Since her last visit, the shy waif she knew has become one of the professionally charming gigolos who service the hotel's middle-aged female visitors in exchange for gifts.

Another lover of Legba is Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), an academic from Boston: a haughty, acerbic queen bee, she proudly expounds her escapist philosophy while tartly venting her contempt for fat people, her students, white men, "natural born losers", in short, pretty much all humanity. Not surprisingly, the film gradually lays bare a tender core of emotional wounding beneath Ellen's layers of armour. But it takes an actor as self-aware and as subtly guarded as Charlotte Rampling to make the character at once so monstrous and so affecting, even while so little is stated explicitly about her history.

As an expedient way to take us under each character's skin - and partly, I suspect, as a nod to Laferrière's writing - the film gives four characters soliloquies direct to camera. Brenda, Ellen and confirmed hedonist Sue (Louise Portal), a Quebecois warehouse worker, are equally revealing about what they're searching for and what they're desperate to escape from. The other soliloquist is Albert (Lys Ambroise), the elderly Haitian hotelier who presides over his territory with a lofty contempt for his own trade and the corrupting effect of tourism on his nation's youth.

Legba himself doesn't speak directly to us - no doubt because Cantet and co-writer/editor Robin Campillo want us to understand how the boy's admirers project needs and fantasies onto him without knowing who he is or how he lives. Instead, the drama follows Legba into Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and the reality that outsiders choose not to see. There, Legba encounters a young woman who has been forced into becoming a colonel's mistress: she may wear finery and ride in a fancy car, but her chauffeur is also her armed jailer. There's no escaping the parallel with Legba and his fellow beach boys, showered with gifts by their white sugar mummies, but themselves prisoners of economic and political power. Even the sympathetic, concerned Brenda is inevitably up to her neck in complicity with Haiti's oppressive regime, and with the post-colonial status quo.

Yet the film is in no way judgmental: it's insightful about the reasons why Ellen and her ilk flock south, and about their alienation at home. This is one of the few recent films - another being François Ozon's Under the Sand, which also starred Charlotte Rampling - to seriously consider the complexities of female sexuality past the age of 40. Rampling is magnificent once again, while Karen Young - a lesser-known name whom you may have seen in The Sopranos - is a startling discovery. Her Brenda is a sensualist apparently teetering on the verge of collapse, but ends up in a curious position of strength - albeit in a subtly ambivalent coda that places her future under a distinct question mark. A major achievement, Heading South confirms the Cantet-Campillo team as a formidable force in European cinema - but it could have you losing sleep over ethical tourism.