Laurent Cantet weaves a dark, disturbing story of hedonism, casual racism and the lethal consequences of self-indulgence in his superb drama “Heading South.”
Set in Haiti in the late 1970s, the film is set in an isolated beach resort populated by American and Canadian women of what can charitably be described as “a certain age.” These women lead colorless and love-free lives at home and escape to the resort for a summer’s worth of attention and pay-for-play adoration from the local muscular young men. While it is all fun and games within the comfy suites and crystalline shores of the resort, within Haiti itself is a miserable environment of suffocating poverty and brutal repression from Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime. When some of the women venture beyond their resort setting to see where their boy toys actually live, it is an experience that jolts them back to reality.
“Heading South” addresses issues of great maturity that rarely find their way into mainstream American movies. The visiting women are, in their own ways, walking tragedies: unable to enjoy their lives at home, carnivorous in the attention they receive from the local men (even though they are clearly paying for such attention), yet unwilling to mix the best of their very different worlds together (none of the women would dare bring the Haitian he-men back home to be their lovers). In a strange but successful device, each woman is given a lengthy monologue (sometimes addressed directly at the camera) that details the emptiness of their lives at home and the fulfillment they find in the warm Caribbean sun and the muscular arms of their summertime gigolos.
Likewise, the Haitian men are victims of their own surroundings – they have no qualms making a living as high-ticket male prostitutes, since their own country offers them nothing in the way of economic advancement. The men are proud, to be certain, but not that proud as to sell their bodies to rich foreign white women who are more interested in these men as carnal playthings rather than as human beings.
Crowning this achievement is the extraordinary performance by Charlotte Rampling as Ellen, a French teacher at an exclusive Boston girls’ school who is the reigning diva of the white woman brigade at the resort. Rampling has been a major film star for four decades (beginning with 1966’s “Georgy Girl”) and she continues to fascinate the viewer with her beauty, immaculate diction and stunning intellectual ability to plumb the depths of her character to create a fully textured personality. In Ellen, she has brought forth an astonishing woman who is equal parts bitch and victim – someone who is quick with the caustic remark but who crumbles like a house of cards when a blast of real life echoes through her world. Her monologue (performed in French) on the disappointment of her career and the magic that her Haitian summers provide, is a masterwork of emotion. If a better performance emerges this year, it will be a miracle.