Laurent Cantet’s Heading South is a good movie that thinks it’s a daring one — and it may be, but it’s also a movie that hedges its daring and often seems unclear on just what point it’s out to make.
The story — set in the late 1970s in Port-au-Prince, Haiti — concerns three (well, really two and a half) “women of a certain age” (read: considerably past 40) who have come there to stay in the relative luxury of a beach resort and avail themselves of the young local men who have nothing going for them other than their physical charms and a willingness to be attentive and biologically accommodating to older female tourists for gifts and a little money. As tourists, the women are largely secluded from the reality of Haiti under the iron rule of Baby Doc Duvalier and his notorious thug enforcers, the Tonton Macoutes (which is perhaps why the dictator and his minions are never actually referenced in the film).
Cantet sets the political tone of the film at the very beginning in a scene where the resort’s dignified representative Albert (Lys Ambroise) is at the airport to greet a new guest. Before she arrives he finds himself confronted by a panic-stricken woman (Marie-Laurence Herard) who wants nothing less than to give him her 15-year-old daughter. Her thought is that the girl’s only chance of survival is in the care of a middle-aged professional man like himself. When he passes up the offer, she warns him to beware, enigmatically telling him that everyone wears a mask and that it’s difficult to tell the good masks from the bad ones.
Immediately after this his charge arrives. This is Brenda (Karen Young, Factotum), a 48-year-old divorcee who has come back to Haiti in an attempt to rediscover the sexual awakening she found there three years earlier — hopefully with the same young man. Unfortunately, it quickly transpires that the object of her desire, Legba (Menothy Cesar), is currently the boy toy of 55-year-old Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), the self-styled, cynical queen bee of the resort.
The crux of the story involves the two women’s efforts to lay claim to Legba — or more correctly to their idea of Legba. There’s also the third woman, the pragmatic Sue (Louise Portal, The Barbarian Invasions), a middle-aged French Canadian, who is tangential to the central storyline and seems to exist in the film mainly as the only level-headed person in the group. Despite Ellen’s outward cynicism and her attempts at denigrating Brenda’s romantic notions, Ellen isn’t as different and superior as she’d like to believe.
That, however, seems less the actual point of the film than the fact that both women are ultimately so self-centered that they recognize nothing outside their own little spheres. When a problem arises, they attempt to solve it by throwing money at it or by offering their presumed influence and power. When tragedy finally arrives, their inability to see beyond themselves results in a kind of self-glorifying sense of being to blame. They are completely incapable of realizing that the tragedy had little, if anything, to do with them. As a metaphor for the arrogance of North Americans to grasp anything outside of their own realm of assumed importance, this is effective, but the film spends so much time focusing on the interior thoughts of the characters and their problems that the point is buried in a slightly soapy character study.
The filmmaker doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s as much an outsider as his characters. But it’s all well acted (Rampling is, as always, brilliant) and well-crafted — and it’s constantly interesting, but it’s finally too unfocused to attain the power it seeks. Not rated, but contains nudity, language, violence and mature themes.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke