In this third outing, director Laurent Cantet delivers a forceful tale of lust, power and exploitation that also reverberates with insights into female sexuality and power dynamics. While his recent Time Out was realism spiced with suspense and his debut Human Resources was realism sprinkled with satire, Heading South is in-your-face, even to the extent that principal characters, in several scenes, confide directly to the camera.
Such an approach in no way interferes with your ability to suspend disbelief but renders the filmmaker's intentions clear: Heading South means to deal with sex and power in a distinct but brutally honest way by putting its main characters under a microscope.
It's the late 1970s and Wellesley French lit professor Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), the neurotic and troubled Brenda (Karen Young) and fun-loving Montrealer Sue (Louise Portal) all show up as returning tourists to a beachfront hotel in search of uncomplicated sex with the accommodating young black hangers-on.
Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the stud who fulfills the fantasies of these idle pleasure seekers. Wise Albert (Lys Ambroise) is the hotel's maitre d', a kind of one-man Greek chorus comfortable with a status quo that keeps the poverty and violence of nearby Port au Prince galaxies away from the idyllic resort. Also following the libidinous action is 12-year-old Eddy (Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz), a sort of hotel mascot who may also be a stud-in-training.
While the vacationers, Ellen and Brenda especially, come across as brittle and competitive, Legba takes his job in stride, skillfully attending to the needs of both women. When Legba turns his attentions to Brenda, Ellen is not a happy camper. What soon emerges, although never clearly enough, is Legba's other life. He's got an ex-girlfriend who has become a successful hooker and a loving mother to whom he gives his gigolo earnings. Worse, he has the corrupt Haitian killer squad after him, for reasons never clarified.
Cantet's flirtation with the politics of the period goes unconsummated, unlike his exploration of what drives his female protagonists. The filmmaker does give the broad strokes of the political picture-Haiti's severe poverty and the broad divide separating the hordes of underprivileged and the island guests, here symbolic of colonizers everywhere. But politics mainly supplies the bookends: the opening scene where a woman offers to sell her daughter, and a final episode where violence, not lust, has the final word. Otherwise, Heading South eschews critical details about the sociopolitical backdrop.
Murky politics aside, the film triumphs as a prism for intimate, personal truths. Its impact has much to do with the superb and brave performances. Again, Rampling startles with the magnetism and honesty of her character. And Cesar, in his film debut, is that proverbial revelation.
Shot largely in the Dominican Republic, Heading South delivers an authentic Haiti, along with a handful of authentic people.