Welcome to Haiti in the '70s, where older women from wealthy nations spend their summers lolling around the beach and sleeping with the beautiful young men who are quite happy to serve as attentive studs in exchange for a taste of the privileged life. Relaxed and casually sexy, the film seduces you with sensual images of paradise, until the realities of life in a poverty-stricken, politically unsteady nation intrude on all the indulgence.
One of the best movies I’ve seen this year, Heading South is effective because it doesn’t hammer any of its various themes at you. Instead, filmmaker Laurent Cantet (Human Resources), working from a screenplay he wrote with Robin Campillo, based on three short stories by Dany Laferriere, focuses on his characters, allowing any statements about age, class, culture, money, sex and privilege to rise as gently as the tide.
Ellen (Charlotte Rampling, in a remarkably assured, outstanding performance) is a 55-year-old teacher enjoying her sixth summer at the Haitian seaside hotel, Petite Anse. Extremely well-spoken and pleased with her own eloquent bluntness, Ellen understands the nature of her relationships with the local boys and claims to accept it all. “I always told myself that when I’m old I’d pay young men to love me,” she says in oh-so-casual tones. “I just didn’t think it would happen so fast.”
The primary object of her affection is Legba (Ménothy Cesar), a sweet-faced 18-year-old who always knows just what to say and what gesture is called for. There is trouble in paradise, however. While Ellen’s good-natured French-Canadian friend Sue (Louise Portal) is content with her own Haitian boyfriend, Brenda (Karen Young), a high-strung divorcee from Georgia, also has eyes for Legba.
Eyeing them all is Albert (Lys Ambroise), the reserved headwaiter at the hotel. A Haitian from a patriotic family, he quietly views the annual visitors with contempt. “Everything they touch turns to garbage,” he says in one of the film’s monologues. Brenda gets a monologue too, and of course Ellen has one. Not Legba, though. Apparently, Cantet felt it best for us to wonder about his true feelings the same way the women do. Haiti ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier — Baby Doc — doesn’t get a monologue either, but his presence is felt throughout the film, especially towards the end.
Heading South, with French, English and Creole dialogue, is at Key Cinemas Beech Grove for one more week. It’s worth your time and money.