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"Heading South": Sex, struggles and oblivion in Haiti
Special to The Seattle Times
Sexual rapture and cultural exploitation merge into something quite horrifying, almost gothic, in "Heading South," an unsettling drama by the director of two other remarkable films about class illusions, "Human Resources" and "Time Out."
French filmmaker Laurent Cantet sets his new work in late-1970s Haiti, when the country was violently ruled by Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. While ordinary Haitians are routinely harassed, waylaid and murdered by Duvalier's privileged thugs, sexual tourism thrives for oblivious North American women at a tropical resort.
There, Brenda (Karen Young), a 48-year-old divorcée from Savannah, Ga., arrives in hope of reconnecting with one of the local gigolos, 18-year-old Legba (Ménothy Cesar). Three years earlier, the then-married Brenda experienced her first orgasm with Legba and has pined for him ever since.
But Legba is also the favorite of the resort's visiting doyenne, Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a 55-year-old, single professor at Wellesley. Ellen is both delightful and venomous, clear-eyed but confrontational. She has been sleeping with Legba for some time and instantly engages in a power struggle with Brenda over his attention.
A couple of other characters at the resort figure into the story, though somewhat awkwardly, not really having an impact. One of them, Albert (Lys Ambroise), the resort's headwaiter, comes from a line of patriots who fought the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Addressing the camera in an ill-fitting monologue sequence (a misstep by Cantet), Albert makes clear that despite his polished deference to the hotel's white visitors, he is ashamed of his work.
Then again, every Haitian we meet in "Heading South," including Legba, is making compromises to survive political realities on the island. The life Legba leads away from the resort, in the streets, is perilous, provoking both his fatalism and pride.
Brenda and Ellen, clutching at him out of need, know next to nothing of this. The tragedy is that it won't make any difference in their vacation plans.
Tom Keogh: email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company