Charlotte Rampling came to international attention in the 1960s as sexually liberated women in film such as
Georgy Girl. In the seventies she was window dressing in films such as
Farewell My Lovely . Then she revealed a neurotic edge in later films such as
The Night Porter Stardust Memories. But her recent performances in films such as
Swimming Pool, Hammers Over the Anvil, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Under the Sand, Lemming and now
Heading South are displaying a range and depth that her earlier work never tapped into.
Heading South , based on a trio of stories by Dany Laferri & egrave;re, is set in Haiti in the late 1970s. Whatever political and social unrest occurring on the tiny island does not spill over into the luxury beach resort where a group of middle-aged women are spending their summer vacations. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is a veteran of these summer escapes. She holds court over a small circle of female guests and the local boys who keep them company. Into this circle comes Brenda (Karen Young), a woman from Georgia who had come to Haiti three years ago with her husband. She's alone now and has arrived with the intent of meeting back up with Legba (M enothy Cesar in a superb performance), a Haitian youth that she and her husband had taken under their wing.
Brenda's presence disrupts the paradise that the women have created. Although there are plenty of attractive young men on the beach, Ellen also proves interested in Legba and pays for his company. She pretends her interest is casual but it's easy to see through her charade. Brenda has returned to the island to try and recapture a romance and sexual passion that she had shared with the teenaged Legba. She's oblivious to everything else-the other women, the life he leads outside the hotel, the social conditions of the island. All she knows is that she had a brief moment of sexual fulfillment with him and she desperately wants to recapture that.
Ellen and Brenda, being white, female, foreign and with money don't exist in the same reality as Legba who is black, poor and a native of Haiti. They are insulated and able to escape whenever they want. He, on the other hand, is trapped by class, race, and economics. The relationship between the women and the Haitian youths has been called "sex tourism," but director Laurent Cantet defers to author Dany Laferri & egrave;re for a more complex assessment of the dynamics involved.
According to a quote by Laferri & egrave;re in the press materials, "Physical desire and sex, as a political metaphor, seemed to me to be the fundamental element, something extraordinary, because, in a society where the relationships between social classes are so terrifying, where the gap between the rich and the poor is so huge, where humiliation, disdain, contempt for others is so intense, the only thing that can bring one particular person closer to another is physical desire. I'm not describing an innocent form of sexuality, but sexuality as an instrument of political, social, or economic power. We're dealing with a small group of very rich people who can buy anything, or who think they can buy anything, people or objects, and with others who are ready to sell the only thing they possess, their youth and their body. I wanted to find out if in this exchange, in this trade, where flesh meets flesh, there wasn't something more."
Heading South suggests that while there is not an equivalent exchange going on, Legba is not exactly a passive victim. In a country with few options, he chooses the one that he thinks is best. The women adore him, pay him, feed him, and clothe him. The hotel offers an escape for him as well as the women. Yet even here Legba still understands that there's a division, and it's a division he also encourages by not letting the women know too much about his personal life.
Cantet carries out the social divide in the way he films his story. The women each get an intimate confession scene where they reveal something very personal and private. They speak directly to the camera in a very forthright, documentary manner. But the black men do not receive the same privilege. Albert (well played by Lys Ambroise), the aloof and dignified hotel worker, gets to speak to the audience through a voiceover only. He makes some personal revelations and observations but he never gets to turn to the camera to speak directly to us. And Legba gets even less. He never receives a chance to reveal himself to us and Cantet keeps him a deliberate mystery. In a way, Cantet lets this be Legba's way of exercising control and power. The only thing Legba can control is the access others have into his life.
Despite her cool veneer, Ellen desperately wants to be a part of Legba's life. After a tragedy, she tries to make herself a part of the event but the local police will have none of it. She's a white tourist and "tourists never die" she's told. She is an outsider here, someone who passes through. This forces Ellen to a sad realization that she was never really a part of Legba's life and that what she created in Haiti was not so much a paradise but a fantasy.
Heading South (unrated but for mature audiences and in French, English and Creole with English subtitles) is an unexpectedly political film. It deals with a host of complex and provocative issues-race, class, sexual desire, gender, aging-but never confronts any of them directly or with the intent of telling us how to think about them. It also boasts another rich performance by Charlotte Rampling who continues to grow more interesting as an actress.
Companion viewing: Under the Sand, Swimming Pool, Lemming, Life and Debt