Beached Wails

Washington City Paper | August 18, 2006
Anyone who’s seen a fair number of French films knows what la plage means: the beach. The seaside vacation is a pillar of Gallic civilization, and French directors per capita set more movies at the shore than do filmmakers of any other nationality. The beach is a place for idle moments and casual romance; it’s only natural that Eric Rohmer, the master of the philosophical makeout flick, so often returns there. But director François Ozon takes a darker view of beaches and swimming pools; his new Time to Leave is not his first effort to mix the fragrances of sea spray and death. That’s also the formula for Laurent Cantet’s Heading South, but then the film is set not in placid Normandy but in Baby Doc Duvalier’s Haiti.

Cantet’s two previous films, the admirable Human Resources and the extraordinary Time Out, were informed by documentary and concerned with the unglamorous world of work. So is Heading South, although the workplace and the product are quite different this time. In late-’70s Haiti, middle-aged women frequent a beachfront hotel known for attracting beautiful young black men. Valium-popping Savannah, Ga., refugee Brenda (Karen Young), who’s introduced being met by hotel proprietor Albert (Lys Ambroise) at the airport, has visited once before. Still married then, she had a sexual awakening with teenage Legba (Ménothy Cesar). On her second trip, she discovers that Legba is now a much more accomplished gigolo. She also finds that his time is monopolized by Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), an imperious and professedly amoral Wellesley French-literature professor who spends all of every summer at the hotel. (Her job explains why Ellen speaks French; it’s unclear why Brenda does.)

Coolly assured, Ellen takes command of the servants and her fellow guests, who also include pudgy Montrealer Sue (Louise Portal). Yet Brenda manages to get Legba’s attention, and Ellen shows signs of jealousy while trying to appear too sophisticated for such emotions. The tussle between the two women is not the principal threat to Legba, however. The young man gets around, and he’s made an enemy among Baby Doc’s thugs. Brenda’s attempts to protect him from indignities—such as Albert’s ban on locals’ eating in the hotel restaurant—ultimately prove to have little effect on his fate.

Although it was adapted by Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo from three short stories by Dany Laferrière, Heading South includes several documentary-like sequences. The most chilling of these are the opening scene, in which Albert is approached by a woman trying to save her teenage daughter from likely sexual enslavement, and a monologue in which Albert addresses the camera directly, revealing his venomous true feelings for the North Americans he serves. The three soliloquies, delivered by Brenda, Ellen, and Sue, are less convincing. This may be because Brenda and Ellen speak in English, whose nuances Cantet doesn’t quite get. Their language is a bit unnatural, and their comments overly literary—not at all what a genuine documentary interview would have yielded.(Tellingly, Legba doesn’t have a monologue; he’s the merchandise, not the consumer.)

Heading South is more persuasive when its characters are hiding their deeper emotions, pretending to be having “fun” as they engage in a desperate struggle against loneliness or, in Legba’s case, poverty. Each battle is unwinnable, but with very different consequences for the loser.

Heading South takes a little too long to arrive at a climax that is a little too foreseeable. Still, it understands the Third World–tourist dynamic, and neatly delineates the way two different kinds of people can live different kinds of existence in the same place. (“Tourists never die” is a cop’s simple summation.) The occasional unworkable dialogue aside, Rampling and Young are altogether convincing, and Cesar both personifies and exemplifies Legba’s effortless charm. It’s easy to see why Ellen and Brenda would be drawn to him, even to the point of ignoring a social system that will inevitably destroy their fantasies—and much more as well.

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