Racial, sexual heat in 1970's Haiti, sans "Jungle Fever"

PopcornReel.com Movie Review: "Heading South"

By Omar P.L. Moore/September 4, 2006


Floating in political peril and sexual paradise at the same time: Charlotte Rampling (as Ellen) keeps Manothy Cesar (Legba) afloat in Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" (Vers Le Sud). 
(Photo: Shadow Distribution)

Laurent Cantet's interesting and provocative drama keeps viewers engaged, but not necessarily for the reasons that may draw audiences to see "Heading South", an occasionally erotic film with some provocative if not sometimes disturbing intersections of race, sex and age on the Caribbean island of Haiti in the late 1970's.  The French-language film in English subtitles, is about three middle-aged white women (an American, a Canadian and a Francophile professor from Boston) who inhabit Haiti and are not shy about what they are looking for: the young local teenage Black men who spend most of their time relaxing, without jobs and living in fear of Papa Doc Duvalier's tyrannical rule, as it was in its final days.


Each of the women in a mock documentary style describe their feelings about being liberated sexually by the young local men, and one  in particular, Brenda (played by Karen Young of "The Sopranos") recalls in explicit detail the time she at age 45 had her first orgasm, courtesy of a then-15-year-old Legba (Manothy Cesar), whom she meets again three years later when returning to Haiti.  This time however, Brenda is not alone -- Sue (Louise Portal) and Ellen (the inimitable Charlotte Rampling) are already enjoying the carnal pleasures of the island -- specifically the charismatic Legba, who at 18 has developed a reputation for being a "stud" of sorts among the white women who crave him.  This reputation is known to Albert (Lys Ambroise) a senior Haitian native who is a chauffer and restaurant serviceman who declines to serve Legba even though Brenda invites Legba as his guest to her table.  The intra-racism of this encounter between Albert and Legba is noteworthy, as is Brenda's response about racism, especially since in a discussion earlier in the film she says that the Blacks in Haiti are "more gracious" than those in America.

Ellen is racist as well -- and she cheerfully admits that she is in Haiti to have sexual escapades.  She has no illusions about her role there and nor does Sue to a lesser extent.  Both are frequently in bed with the young teenagers, and Ellen has intimate and tender encounters with Legba, who has a past which through some shaky writing (Mr. Cantet and Robin Campillo) and plot points, catches up to him.  Ellen and Brenda are embroiled in a tension between them as they fight over Legba.  For all intents and purposes, "Heading South" is an essentially plot-less film with three women who are blithely biding their libidinous years hoping for the promise or illusion of love.  Of the three women, it is Brenda who is the most blindly and naively hopeful for true love, even if it comes recklessly or dangerously.  She has abandoned all hope of love or marriage with "men from the North" (presumably a metaphor for white men) as she puts it, and will head south to other Caribbean islands to seek pleasures in a man with whom she will look to spend the second half of her life with. 

I want your sex: The Sopranos' Karen Young (as Brenda) revisits her first time all over again, walking towards Legba (Manothy Cesar) on the beach in Haiti in Laurent Cantet's "Heading South."
(Photo: Shadow Distribution)

"Heading South" has a serene and sometimes disquieting quality to it -- the outburst by Ellen, who believes that she's not in love with Legba but is clearly smitten and deeply obsessed with him -- plus two other quietly shocking scenes, one where the eight-year old Eddy (played by Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz) engages in an intimate dance with Brenda, and in another scene, where he accompanies Ellen back to her home in Haiti and wants to be more than just an escort -- the disturbing aspect comes where Ellen who is 55, responds, "I need to be alone tonight."  Cantet leaves the audience to respond to the troubling and controversial questions of age difference -- one which many societies still struggle with, particularly in a sexist way -- the societal commotion normally occurs when the women is much older than the man she is having the sexual relationship or marriage, etc., with.

These women clearly objectify and fetishize the young men on the island in a shrewd role-reversal of many films that some audiences have grown accustomed to.  Legba (whose lean frame makes him look pre-pubescent) and other young men are seen stripping off to their birthday suits in full-frontal nude moments in front of their grateful, welcoming middle-aged female recipients, but the filmmaker himself seems neither to glorify nor shy away from presenting these encounters; the cameras appear to be uncomfortable voyeurs, as uncomfortable as some audiences are likely to be.  And unlike Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever", there is little editorializing by the characters, if any at all.  "Heading South" is uninterested with Haiti on a political level if on any level at all -- the country is more a backdrop for these women, whom the story is singularly about -- from their viewpoint.

By all means, Cantet's film is more an examination of obsessive, rapacious middle-aged women who are in so many words, "raping" young and under-aged men with their appetites for sexual nirvana, than it is about interracial sex.  The somber, tragic undercurrent of "Heading South" is the futures of these young Haitian men, who are being "raped" twice it seems, once on a political and economic level by the brutal dictator Duvalier, and a second time on a social-sexual level by these modestly-well-to-do foreign women, tourists who in the words of one older Haitian native man, "don't die".  The racial dynamic which may be especially provocative to audiences in America more so than elsewhere, seems to be the least of the film's focuses in the final analysis.


"Heading South" is based on three short stories by Dany Laferriere.  The film is playing in selected American cities and is not rated.  The film's duration is 1 hour 45 minutes and is in French language with English .  The film opened on September 1 in San Francisco and other parts of the country in an expanded release and will continue to move around North America.

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