Heading South (15)
Time Out says
Tue Jul 4 2006It became clear that a major new talent had arrived on the scene when Laurent Cantet released his two previous films, ‘Time Out’ and ‘Human Resources’, both gripping and original dramas about work and identity fashioned with Cantet’s individual post-Bressonian concentration. His latest effort marks a move away from France and his more claustrophobic fascinations. For ‘Heading South’, he travels to the post-colonial Haiti of the late ’70s, where rich tourists sun themselves under paradisiacal skies sweetly oblivious to the rotten, corrupting mechanisms of the ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier dictatorship that surrounds them.
Two such tourists, the imperious Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) and easy-going Sue (Louise Portal), greet a third: the more vulnerable and impressionable Brenda (Karen Young). These three unattached American women – varying in age from their thirties to their fifties – present the face of the carefree modern sex industry. Carefree, that is, until they begin to fall out over the attentions of youthful local Adonis Legba (Ménothy Cesar)…This smells like Tennessee Williams territory; Big Daddy would certainly detect the obnoxious odour of mendacity that suffuses the luxuriously appointed private hotels and beach huts of Cantet’s marvellous movie. Imagine what an Almodóvar or an Ozon would do with these pampered, leisured and competing rich bitches.
Sure, Cantet is aware of the melodrama inherent in source writer Dany Laferrière’s searing stories and gives free rein to his actresses – deriving, in the process, some of the most affecting work of the beautiful 60-year-old Charlotte Rampling’s distinguished career. Karen Young is excellent too, offering something of the touching, edgy vulnerability that Gena Rowlands communicated for her husband John Cassavetes. But Cantet’s game is different. His style may have opened up. There’s still the Bressonian close-up – the supplicant hand of the local woman at the airport who wants to give away her beautiful 15-year-old daughter in the film’s shocking, hurtful opening (a moment symbolic of the desperate poverty of the country). But the glass-encased, interior mise-en-scène of the earlier films has gone, replaced with a looser, windswept shooting style and freer dramatic structure.
Cantet’s interests, however, remain the same: to analyse the significance of seemingly small human gestures and to show, or open, the hidden workings of the everyday, first of work, here of play. Cantet makes crystal clear the exacting human cost extorted from the exploited Haitian, drawing out the ironic contradictions in his portrayal of Legba’s ex-lover, now paid escort for a powerful politician, entombed in a Cadillac under the ever-watchful eye of a menacing chauffeur.
But the director doesn’t like to preach; unlike Michael Haneke, he doesn’t appeal to the guilty liberal conscience. He’s interested, rather, in the implications of our actions and the essential connectedness (and contradictions) of our world. The film does have its problems. Arguably, its tragic ambitions are not fully realised and its pacing sags occasionally. Otherwise, it’s a delight; an entertaining, moving, audacious and stimulating conversation about happiness, love, jealousy, fear, race, sex, class, and social and colonial oppression – in short, the relationship between the personal and the political. ‘It’s hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one,’ says the airport woman. Cantet seeks to cast both aside, and does so with a compassionate grace.
Author: Wally Hammond
Fri Jul 7, 2006