In Heading South (or Vers le Sud, before the film was re-titled for speakers of American) director Laurent Cantet adapts a few short stories by Dany Laferrière, positing a trio of white Northerners on a beach in Haiti during the summer of 1979. The three women—played by Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young and Louise Portal—adopt (paid) black boyfriends who are three or more decades younger than themselves. Cantet intends the viewers, and if not them, then certainly the reviewers, to inhale the geopolitik drift of associations vis-à-vis "Baby Doc" Duvalier's regime, the ruling power at the time.
The movie's idea of political relevance is a joke, however. It's all subliminal, and while I don't mind having to work to divine meanings from an artist's intentions, here, anyway, Cantet isn't an artist. He's made the kind of film that's meant to be inferred, not watched—in short, a natural for "analysis" by practitioners of what I call the Village Voice school of arts criticism, which turns out reviewers who are so hyperaware politically that you don't have to be, and neither does the moviemaker. There's more talk of Duvalier in the press kit than in Heading South itself, a movie in which one minor character effusively refers to another minor character as a "guardian angel," then, in due time, said angel turns out to be a pistol-brandishing assassin, to the surprise of absolutely no one.
Louise Portal's Sue—in whom Cantet has so little interest that she hardly registers as a character at all, or even as a type—hails from Montreal and works in a factory there. Rampling's Ellen is an Englishwoman who teaches French literature at Wellesley, where, of course, she despises her students. Brenda is supposed to be an affluent housewife from Savannah, Georgia, though as the mousy Karen Young plays her, with a flat, nasal New York accent, this seems highly unlikely. Brenda is a masochistically conceived role. She has the hots for one of the young men, Legba (played with a great deal of assurance by Ménothy Cesar), whom she seduced on the beach three summers before; but Legba now sleeps with Ellen, and so the two women vie to possess him. After Legba finally beds Brenda again, here is Young, on the long duration without him: "My belly ached. Every night. Especially at night." Wouldn't body language and facial expression convey this desperation just as plainly, sans the impossible dialogue?
There's a glaze of sexual and racial politics, over which cine-pundits will make much. But this, too, is more spoon-feeding than food for thought. The women insist that the Haitian teenagers are different because of the setting and circumstance; yet it's the women's perceptions that are different. Over dinner, the question comes up as to why they don't date black men at home. The reason strikes me as fairly obvious: Why does anyone depart from expectation when out of town? In Haiti, the women are free from the scrutiny of white culture looking askance at their interracial relations.
Far from being politically or sexually insightful, Heading South belongs to a sub-genre that has sprung up in recent years: Terrible, Euro-trashy, erotically-tinged movies Charlotte Rampling stars in, and typically outclasses. As in Rampling's endeavors for the ridiculous François Ozon, Under the Sand and Swimming Pool, Rampling gives a warm, winning performance as a character who isn't all that likable—a sensitive, intelligent soul who, as you would expect in cinema of this bent, finds herself in the most outré of situations. Near the end of Heading South, when Rampling's haughty Ellen lambastes the dishrag Brenda, it's a moment worthy of Bette Davis at her peak. Like Davis, Rampling inhabits the supreme echelons of vindictiveness as naturally as she breathes—or perhaps I should say, as naturally as she exhales her cigarette. She's ideally suited to play women who best assuage their own hurt by hurting others. It's been a while since she last had a director and a script that were her equal, but at least she continues to work, year after year, not denying us the good, bitchy pleasures of her company.
Heading South opens July 7 in New York.
N.P. Thompson lives, writes, and photo-blogs in the Pacific Northwest.