Laurent Cantet’s anticipated follow-up to “Time Out” supplants that pic’s important issues with unexamined attitudes toward sex and the tropics. The trio of women in “Heading South” luxuriate in the sexual pleasures of a Haitian beach resort, and while Cantet puts enough uncomfortable words in their mouths to signal their problematic viewpoint, he fails to give their plaything his own voice. Helmer’s rep will ensure a brisk fest existence, but life on the outside will largely rest on Francophone screens.
Three years after her first trip to Haiti, Brenda (Karen Young) returns to the beach resort where she had a fling with a 15-year-old boy named Legba. Now a confident, beautiful young man, Legba (Menothy Cesar) is the star attraction for the sexually frustrated middle-aged women who fly down to the island in search of erotic pleasure.
Doyenne of the establishment is Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a 55-year-old Wellesley professor who spent the last six summers reveling in the hotel’s liberating atmosphere, where smooth-skinned, half-naked black men cater to her desires. Legba is her favorite, and she’s not about to let anyone else take the number one position by his side.
But Brenda expressly returned to Haiti to see the boy who gave her her first orgasm at 45, and the two women eye each other warily. Less threatening is Sue (Louise Portal, “The Barbarian Invasions”), a Canadian with her own beach boy.
While it’s certainly true the resort allows the young men to temporarily escape the political and economic misery of the country, Cantet’s disingenuous remark that he wants to shift the discourse from “sex tourism” to “love tourism” fails to convince.
Ellen passionately implores Legba to come away with her, but in reality she would never present him to her Wellesley set. At least Maxine in “The Night of the Iguana” is aware of her erotic needs but doesn’t hold on to the hypocrisy and prejudice these women unthinkingly maintain.
What remains is a group of women on their summer holiday, dissatisfied and embittered by the men back home, exploiting Third World young men.
Perhaps the description sounds more crass than Cantet serves up in his well-crafted work. He punctuates the story with four monologues, the three women plus Albert (Lys Ambroise), the hotel maitre d’ and the only black man allowed a voice of his own.
Albert’s bitterness deserved further development, but the real puzzle is why Cantet doesn’t let Legba have a say.
Cantet as usual elicits top performances from his cast, although a more limited feel for the flow of English conversation occasionally deadens dialogue and monologue. Rampling, one of the joys of cinema in the past five years, is the ideal actress to convey Ellen’s blend of liberated carnality, Bostonian snobbery and racism, plus a deep vulnerability. Newcomer Cesar appears able but his dramatic moments are too infrequent.
Although set in the late 1970s, pic doesn’t try to push a period flavor. Lensing and tone are similar to Cantet’s earlier work, and together with regular d.p. Pierre Milon and editor Robin Campillo (also co-scripter), he allows events to gradually unfold in a stripped-down way that never calls attention to itself.