As with Claire Denis’s Chocolat, Laurent Cantet’s Heading South probes turbulent, neo-colonialist interpersonal dynamics via the romantic relationships between older, wealthy white women and young, subservient black men, here embodied by middle-aged sexual tourist femmes and their nubile, dark-skinned beaus in volatile 1970s Haiti. It’s a subject that, on the surface, exhibits little in common with the director’s previous, workplace-related Human Resources and Time Out, though closer inspection reveals Cantet’s latest (based on stories by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière) to be a kindred thematic spirit to its predecessors, preoccupied by labor transactions, people’s longing for unattainable mastery over forces beyond their control, and the subsequent facades they assume as a means of compensating for said powerlessness.
“It’s hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one,” says a woman to Albert (Lys Ambroise) as he awaits the airport arrival of Savannah resident Brenda (Karen Young), the newest guest at Hotel Petite Anse, a beachside resort where foreigners pay to enjoy the pleasures of native flesh. It’s a statement that applies to everyone luxuriating beneath the southern hemisphere’s sky, yet most piercingly with regard to the tug-of-warring trio of quixotic Brenda, luscious Haitian Legba (Ménothy Cesar), with whom Brenda shared a momentous tryst years earlier, and domineering Bostonian Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), who also covets the indigenous hunk and resents the appearance of her new competitor.
Cantet situates the women’s passive-aggressive contest for Legba’s devotion in an environment defined by capitalist commerce, where love, sex, security and companionship are all commoditized by interloping Westerners and endangered by external market forces (racially charged tensions, Baby Doc Duvalier’s street patrolling thugs). Theirs is a highly politicized ménage-a-trois fraught with complications involving issues of servitude, privilege, abuse and manipulation, though unlike its female vacationers, Heading South shrewdly avoids exoticizing not only the black gigolos who ply their trade on sandy shores and in cabana beds, but also the Port-au-Prince slums from which Legba hails and where the film, in its only significant misstep, eventually ventures.
With every one of their communiqués colored by economic or social disparity, Cantet’s three protagonists all tacitly agree to be both exploiter and exploited, readily engaging in behavior that’s mutually beneficial (i.e. Ellen and Brenda receive emotional and carnal attention, Legba monetary and maternal succor) and yet fundamentally predicated on irreconcilable and potentially disastrous inequalities. And though their reasons for this financial/romantic arrangement are superficially divergent, what gradually emerges is a portrait of shared desires for supremacy over messy, unhappy lives which—outside of the supposedly safe confines of their inviting ocean-set resort, which the director shoots like a glistening paradise—seem hopelessly unmanageable.
Such desires are, by story’s end, no more sustainable than is the central, tempestuous threesome, with Ellen and Brenda’s rivalry finally nullified, during the latter two’s trip to a local market, by a callous world they cannot escape. It’s during this third act, even more than in vivid but clumsy narrative digressions involving Legba’s soccer playing and dealings with a former girlfriend, that Heading South becomes slightly too overt with its socio-political concerns as well as somewhat constrained by functional plot developments. Still, Cantet’s easygoing and intimate direction is by and large so assured, and his gorgeous milieu so entrancing, that these missteps seem far less important than Pierre Milon’s gloriously unruffled, palm tree-dappled cinematography and Rampling’s tightly wound performance as Ellen, a resentful old maid whose brazen protestations in favor of hedonism mask a deep-rooted yearning for amorous affection. In an early, telling conversation, Legba casually asks Ellen if she’d like to know his weight preferences for lovers, to which the grand dame playfully remarks, “No dear. Leave me with my illusions.” It’s a simultaneous request for ignorance and act of denial that characterizes the imprudent, self-centered behavior of the idyll’s American inhabitants—and also, ultimately, comes to epitomize Heading South’s acute portrait of the willful blindness that helps foster such inequitable colonialist conditions.