Heading South (2005) Charlotte Rampling and Other Sexually Starved White Women in Haiti

The French Director Laurent Cantet follows up his critically acclaimed social dramas, Time Out, set during an austere wintertime in France and Switzerland, and Human Resources, with Heading South (“Vers le sud”), set in sun-drenched Haiti during the late 1970s.

Though not as compelling as his first films, Heading South is always provocative, revealing an intellectual artist who probes intriguing questions about how the personal and the political interface and clash in issues of sexual desire and social intimacy.  Cantet may have been to first Western director to explore issues of sexual tourism.

Based on three stories by the native Haitian writer Dany Laferriere, “Heading South” is Cantet’s first film in which the protagonists are women and the POV is almost consistently and subjectively female.

In this story, set before the AIDS epidemic and while Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power, the heat comes not only from the summertime tropical setting.  It’s also generated by physical and sexual desire.

Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, and Louise Portal head a group of single middle-aged women who have come to Haiti for sun, fun, romance and sex. They desire the solicitous attention of attractive young Haitian men. The teenaged Legba (Menothy Cesar) is an especially prized companion for whom the women vie.

Three years after her first trip to Haiti, Brenda (Young) returns to the beach resort where she had an affair with the then 15-year old Legba, who gave her her first orgasm. Now a confident, handsome, and vibrant man, Legba is the main attraction for frustrated women of a certain age, desperate for erotic pleasure but also companionship.

Protagonist is Ellen (Rampling, in top form), a 55-year-old Wellesley College French professor who had spent her last six summers in this liberated atmosphere, where half-naked black men fulfill her sexual desires. Legba is her prime supplier of pleasure, and she is reluctant to share him with the other women.

Ellen and Brenda, a housewife from Georgia, examine each other with wary suspicion, while the third woman, Canadian factory worker Sue (Louise Portal of “The Barbarian Invasions”) represents no immediate threat since she has her own beach boy.

From the boys’ perspective, the resort and its white women, who are generous with money and gifts, offer a temporary relief from the economic misery of a country that’s also politically devastated.

As for the women, we get the impression of bitterness and dissatisfaction with the (white) middle-aged men they have left behind.

Cantet’s women may represent updated versions of Tennessee Willliams’ sexually frustrated heroines, such as Vivien Leigh in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” vying for a much younger Italian gigolo (played by all-American Warren Beatty), and Ava Gardner’s Maxine in “The Night of the Iguana,” surrounded by local boys in an isolated Mexican resort.

Complications arise, when Ellen asks Legba to leave the place and join her, though we doubt if and how she’s going to introduce her outsider beau to her academic colleagues and intellectual milieu.

What’s new and provocative about the film is Cantet’s effort to bridge the personal and the political, and to contrast First World Vs. Third World countries by suggesting sexual and social exploitation. In other words, physical desire is presented and dissected as a socio-biological need as well as a political metaphor, with subtlety and lack of pretentiousness.

Stylistically, “Heading South” also differs from Cantet’s previous outings by punctuating the yarn with four long monologues, from the three women and Albert (Lys Ambroise), the hotel manager, which are delivered directly to the camera.

Curiously, Albert is the only male figure to be given a distinctive voice.  I was actually more interested in hearing Legba’s speech than Albert’s since he is at the center of conflict.  Other than the above stylistic device, Cantet again directs in remarkably clean and unobtrusive mode.

Many questions remain unresolved at the end, based on flaws in the writing, as well as Cantet’s belief in ambiguous conclusions; his other films also have open-ended quality about them. Occasionally, I felt lack of compfort on Cantet’s part and also detachment, looking at the women from the outside; perhaps a female director like Claire Denis or Catherine Breillat would have probed deeper into the film’s issues.

Nonetheless, whatever is flawed about the text (and I have not read the three short stories about sexual tourism upon which the script is based) is made up by terrific acting from the predominantly female ensemble.

You have to admire the explicit way in which the women discuss their sexual pleasure, as one of them revels: “I touched his big cock. It got hard. It was violent, and I never stopped screaming.  It was my first orgasm.”

Continuing the new, exciting chapter of her career, which began six years ago with Francois Ozon’s “Under the Sand,” Rampling gives a terrific performance in a role that suits her like a glove.  Contrasted with the childish American neurotic (well played by Karen Young), Rampling captures vividly an aging intellectual woman, torn by mixed feelings of sneering contempt, sexual hunger, self-protection, and perhaps bit of guilt, too. Just note how she greets the new arrivals: “Welcome to Paradise.”


Charlotte Rampling as Ellen

Karen Young as Brenda

Louise Portal as Sue

Ménothy César as Legba

Lys Ambroise as Albert