Laurent Cantet's Heading South is an intense little film about colonialism and sexuality and about the ugliness of capitalism in the third world. From the very first scene, where a woman offers her young daughter to a stranger in the airport, it is clear that the picture will be both tawdry and dispassionate.
Essentially a story of sexual tourists who summer in Haiti, Heading South is languid, but with a bite. The teeth are supplied by Charlotte Rampling, whose Ellen plays the cold-eyed realist. She audaciously states what everyone in her group of wealthy, white, middle-aged women is thinking and does it with wit and a hard, hard sense of humor. Naturally, the façade falls away toward the end of the film and we see that it has been protecting something much more delicate inside.
In contrast, Brenda (Karen Young) is apparently all surface emotion. An American woman whose first visit to Haiti, with her then husband, literally climaxes in shattering orgasmic sex on the beach with Legba, a 15-year-old native boy. Brenda returns to the island three years later seeking to rekindle her relationship with Legba only to discover that he has become the preferred gigolo among the female tourists. Being the greedy American, Brenda wants Legba to herself, but that's not what drives the tension in the film.
The main characters, including Legba, Alfred, the concierge of the resort and Sue, another of the tourists, talk directly to the camera when they are on their own, retelling the stories they tell themselves, prejudices and self-delusions on vivid display. When Alfred speaks, his brief history of colonialism pierces the dark core of the film. "Americans," he says, "have returned to the island with weapons stronger than guns. They have dollars, and with them everything they touch turns to garbage." The island has become a waste dump and while the Haitians are exploited by the Europeans and Americans who visit, they brutalize one another. They have been made into a low-cost commodity by the foreigners and then scramble amongst themselves to define their own relative value.
Which made me think of Cuba and of what will happen to that island when Castro is no more. It is as though his regime has kept the land secure so that it will be that much sadder when it is overrun by wealthy Americans and covered in tract home developments. A few weeks ago, when Castro announced that he had transferred power to his brother, the reporters of NPR fanned out to get Cuban reaction. The most horrifying thing I heard that week was a young man talking about how his grandmother, a Cuban exile, wants to return to the island -- and open a McDonald's.
Everything these days is just a commodity waiting to be exploited. Why should people be any different? In fact, they're not. Look around. The Gap shirt I'm wearing as I write is proof that I care more for cheap goods than I do for the welfare of the laborer. I can't pretend I didn't hear Ms. Magazine's story about the Marianas Islands, which demonstrated how closely the garment and sex trades are related. (Listen to the story on Fresh Air.)
Heading South could have been twice as long and I wouldn't have minded watching its clear-eyed view of a world that has "gone south." Leave it to the French! I only wish American movies had the compassion and intelligence to tackle difficult subjects with the fierce courage the French do regularly. The characters were so rich, the situation so ripe with tension that it was strange to watch the narrative devices that would lead to the climax and ending of the film kick in. The "dramatic" ending felt almost forced.
Ultimately, is Heading South shocking because women are openly exploiting the island men for their own sexual gratification? Or is the subject only acceptable BECAUSE they are women? As I thought about the way the film was sending subtle shocks through my system, I realized that it would be un-watchable if the genders were reversed -- as they are much more often in real life. Whatever the gender, this kind of exploitation is so true to life, the final moments of the film feel like they are coming straight out of a horror movie. You know the kind where everyone has relaxed because the killer has been vanquished, but he jumps up and continues the rampage at the end. In this case the sexual tourist, now with a taste for the third world, is determined to broaden her palette and, in true American spirit, she is able to rationalize her actions, just like Norman Bates does at the end of Psycho. Flies beware.