Directed by Laurent Cantet. Starring Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Ménothy Cesar, Louise Portal, Lys Ambroise, Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz. (2005, NR, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 1, 2006
I definitely have the wrong travel agent. In Heading South, which is set in the late Seventies in Haiti, North American women of a certain age are sex tourists at the seaside resorts, where strapping young rent-boys are a tacit part of the summer package. French filmmaker Cantet – whose previous films Time Out and Human Resources revealed to U.S. audiences the director's proclivity toward issues of class and money – uses this setup to coax out the comparisons, contradictions, and mutual exploitations between black and white, rich and poor, power, reality, and delusions. It's a wonderful story, and one I can't recall having been told in just this way … and that's why it hurts that this isn't an even better movie, one that perfectly nails (rather than dances around) its subject matter and invents characters capable of expressive depths. Heading South is provocative and prodding, but apart from its queen bee Ellen (the marvelous Rampling), the characters are representational types instead of fleshed-out human beings. Furthermore, when a little bit of dramatic suspense is introduced midway through the story, it seems both too little and too much. Monologues about themselves that the central female characters deliver directly to the camera also seem to convey an embarrassing excess or aimless little. Still, there's the glorious Rampling, whose sharp tongue and unleashed libido make her the planet around which all the others revolve. These women from the United States and Canada vacation in their island paradise completely oblivious to the rampantly murderous regime of Haiti's strongman Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (which would be overthrown in just a few more years). We also see bits of indigenous perspective from the viewpoint of hotel concierge Albert (Ambroise), who is the son of Haitians who fought the American invasion in 1915 but now resents his tourist guests for coming armed with weapons more dangerous than the guns of the previous invaders: These tourists come with dollars. Of Legba (Cesar), the obvious favorite among the women's lovers, we learn very little, even though the story's dramatic crisis concerns his welfare. Though Ellen and newcomer Brenda (Young), who is returning to the resort she once visited with her ex-husband, would be reluctant to admit it, each harbors unvented illusions about her importance in Legba's emotional life. Heading South opens up a fascinating world of complexities, some of which are there on the screen although others open up only once the horizon line moves past the screen's edge.