Sometimes the urge to commend a movie for examining a worthwhile and largely ignored issue is overpowered by the mediocrity of the movie itself. Laurent Cantet’s Heading South (Vers le sud) is the perfect example. Heading South tackles a provocative subject, wealthy white women chasing erotic fetishes in late-’70s Haiti. But graceless writing and amateurish acting result in something less challenging and more like a French take on How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
To his credit, Cantet opens his film brilliantly: Albert (Lys Ambroise), a well-dressed, middle-aged Haitian man waiting at an airport, is accosted by a Haitian woman who begs him to take her teenaged daughter as his wife. The man says no, the woman’s pleading becomes increasingly hysterical, and we learn that Albert is the owner of the Port-au-Prince resort that will double as a sexual playground for our three white Stellas and their chosen black lovers. “Welcome to Duvalier-era Haiti,” the film seems to say, a place where mutual exploitation runs rampant and even good guys like Albert are resigned to participate in the cycle.
If only Heading South maintained this level of interest in its own politics. Unfortunately, it quickly turns melodramatic. The story zeroes in on the rivalry between Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a British Wellesley professor, and Brenda (Karen Young), a naïve American divorcée, over a strapping Haitian teenager named Legba (Ménothy César). Also along for her own comparatively carefree escapade is good-natured Sue (Louise Portal), who mostly keeps out of the drama.
As the ladies frolic in the sand with their objects of desire, lavishing them with gifts, sipping colorful drinks, and dancing, the movie points to the temptation that drives such varieties of indulgence. Legba’s sex-filled afternoons at the resort are an undeniably seductive alternative to his inner-city background, and he basks in the privilege like a pampered, sweet-tempered prince. What the film neglects to do, however, is bring to life the complexities of this situation, the insidious power dynamics in relationships between love-starved tourists and poverty-stricken locals offering their bodies to escape destitution.
Heading South is guilty of both sloppy filmmaking and muddled politics. The first charge can be blamed partly on a screenplay (adapted from three short stories by Canadian-Haitian writer Dany Laferrière) that, at least in the many English-speaking passages, misses the rhythms of how people actually speak. Several crucial scenes are botched by spasms of laughably overwrought dialogue. It’s hard to stay invested in a film that aspires to sociopolitical significance but veers towards camp.
That’s not to say the gallery of lonely pleasure seekers and playboys are precisely “straight,” but they are sloppily sketched at best. Rampling pulls off Ellen’s contradictions, presiding over the other women with regal contempt yet affectingly shocked at a catastrophic final act’s turn of events. The other women are less convincing, particularly Brenda, so passive that it’s hard to take her growing attachment to Legba seriously.
Still, the figure who most exemplifies the film’s shaky grip on its subject matter is Legba. While the women carelessly throw around their First World power in bids to possess someone whose life they can’t even begin to comprehend, the movie becomes wrapped up in Ellen’s and Brenda’s catty tug-of-war while neglecting Legba’s concerns. And so he appears much as we might imagine the women see him, as an alluring concept. With their newfound sexual empowerment gradually eroded by disillusionment, the women are finally predictable. And so is their story: the imperialists barge in, unaware of the havoc they wreak, and everyone knows the rest.
Heading South tries to shake things up by asking what would happen if love entangled itself in the sex tourism equation, but the question leads to trite answers. With no insight granted into Legba’s experience, the film’s potential tragedy is reduced to a cliché having to do with whether our Stellas find their grooves.