"I'm crazy about love - sex and love, I'm not really sure anymore," declares Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), the haughty, brutally forthright queen bee in the gaggle of sex tourists frolicking through Laurent Cantet's devastating film "Heading South."
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"I always told myself that when I'm old I'd pay young men to love me," she continues in her best blasé manner. "I just didn't think it would happen so fast." A beautiful, unmarried 55-year-old teacher of French literature at Wellesley, Ellen has spent the last six summers vacationing at the Petite Anse, a seaside Haitian hotel frequented by poor black boys eager to provide sex to middle-age female guests who lavish them with money and gifts. Ellen, the resident philosopher among a group who picnic with their boyfriends on the beach, is a bossy know-it-all who is not quite as hard-boiled as she would like to imagine.
As "Heading South" narrows its focus to concentrate on Ellen; her favorite young lover, the handsome, sly 18-year-old Legba (Ménothy Cesar); and two of the women in her circle, it becomes one of the most truthful examinations ever filmed of desire, age and youth, and how easy it is to confuse erotic rapture with love.
"If you're over 40 and not as dumb as a fashion model, the only guys who are interested are natural born losers or husbands whose wives are cheating on them," Ellen tartly observes of the mating game as it applies to single women of a certain age.
But "Heading South" is much more than a dispassionate examination of middle-age desire. Adapted from three short stories by Dany Laferrière and set in the late 1970's, when Haiti was ruled by Jean-Claude Duvalier (nicknamed Baby Doc) and a cadre of thugs, this politically pointed film contemplates the darker social undercurrents beneath a seemingly benign example of sexual tourism.
In a dirt-poor country where life is cheap, there is a local saying that those who grow too tall in Haiti are cut down; the exceptions, of course, are tourists.
Observing the tourism with profound distaste is the hotel's courtly, discreet headwaiter, Albert (Lys Ambroise). In a film constructed around four shattering monologues addressed to the camera, Albert's is the only Haitian voice to speak from the heart and what he says is chilling. Descended from a family of patriots who fought the Americans in the 1915 occupation, he harbors an implacable loathing of the white visitors. His grandfather, he says, believed "the white man was an animal." Albert adds, "If he knew I was a waiter for Americans, he would die of shame." Today, he declares, whites wield an even more dangerous weapon than cannons - their dollars: "Everything they touch turns to garbage."
How perilous life is for ordinary Haitians under Mr. Duvalier is suggested in the movie's opening scene, in which Albert, waiting to pick up a tourist at the airport, is approached by a Haitian woman who points to her beautiful 15-year-old daughter and pleads with him to take her because "being beautiful and poor in this country, she doesn't stand a chance; they won't think twice of killing me to grab her."
The other three characters who bare their souls are Ellen and two fellow sex tourists, Brenda (Karen Young) and Sue (Louise Portal). Brenda, 48, is a high-strung, Valium-popping woman from Savannah, Ga.; she is returning to the resort three years after she visited with her now-ex-husband and had sex with the 15-year-old Legba, who gave her her first orgasm. She has been obsessed with him ever since. Sue, a levelheaded, good-hearted French Canadian who runs a warehouse in Montreal, has a Haitian boyfriend she adores, but she knows full well that in any other place the relationship would be laughable.
With a screenplay in French, English and a smattering of Creole by Mr. Cantet and Robin Campillo, "Heading South" is a beautifully written, seamlessly directed film with award-worthy performances by Ms. Rampling and Ms. Young. As Ellen and Brenda compete for Legba's love, both imagine that they play a larger role in his life than they actually do. The little we see of Legba away from the resort suggests a complicated past. When a gunman goes after him, the women imagine they are the immediate cause of his troubles. They are, but only to the extent that Legba conspicuously stands out in the flashy clothes Brenda buys him. As much as Ellen and Brenda think they understand him and the state of fear that grips Haiti, they are ultimately clueless.
At first glance, "Heading South" seems to be a departure for the director of "Human Resources" and "Time Out," two of the more critically acclaimed French films in recent years. But it continues Mr. Cantet's incisive examination of money and class in modern society. In "Human Resources," a French blue-collar family is torn apart when the son of an assembly-line worker joins the same company's white-collar management team, and father and son find themselves on opposite sides of a picket line.
The desperate protagonist of "Time Out" loses the high-paying job on which his self-esteem depends and convinces his family he has landed even better work, while drifting around in his car and living on money borrowed from friends that he pretends to invest. In "Heading South," money also rules. The romantic spell that Legba exerts over Ellen and Brenda is bought and paid for.
Mr. Cantet's film is too sophisticated to demonize these women, whose relationships with their young lovers are more tender and nourishing than overtly crass. For all its political acuity, this great film recognizes and respects the complexity of its memorable, fully realized characters.