This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).
The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.
Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.
At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.
The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.
Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.