Heading South [2005; Laurent Cantet]
This is the second film I’ve seen by Cantet,The Class being the first. I think I like this a little more than The Class, but they’re incomparable, really— both films, in my view (correct me if I’m wrong re: The Class) do deal with white privilege and how it affects the resulting interactions between people who differ in both race and class, but narratively they’re quite different, to me. The Class feels more like a free-form discussion from which a narrative emerges, while Heading South almost rigidly adheres to a set structure, using the characters’ actions and past experiences to build to an abrupt— although not entirely unforeseen— climax that creates both devastation and casual indifference in its wake.
Three of the film’s protagonists are middle-aged white women who stay at a Haitian resort (with varying annual regularity) and engage in almost exclusively sexual relationships with the young boys that live in the area. (All three claim to be in love with their paramours at one point or another, but the distance that Cantet creates between the audience and the actual relationships suggests that is not the case.) Undoubtedly, all three are engaging in sexual tourism, but their motivations differ.
Sue (Louise Portal) is a somewhat well-meaning Canadian factory worker who simply seeks companionship of any sort at the resort because she can’t find it back at home. She possesses an element of “they know not what they do” and is subsequently the most sympathetic character, made more sympathetic by the fact that she seems to be the one who possesses the kindest heart of the three.
Somewhat tangentially, she is subjected to cruel comments about her weight and build in absentia by Ellen (played masterfully, as is her typicality, by Charlotte Rampling), a French professor at Wellesley who seems most aware of the games being played. She scornfully talks about her female students who seem perpetually heartbroken and, when seeing Legba, a young man who sleeps with her and several other women at the resort, wearing expensive-looking clothing, comments with disgust about how he looks like “a black guy from Harlem”.
Ellen pretty much spells out her own sense of colonialism (a word I, admittedly, probably wouldn’t use were it not for her British accent) when she states, upon gazing at Legba dancing with another unnamed woman at the resort, “Legba belongs to everyone.” Later in the film, she orders the kitchen staff out of their work area to have a conversation with him, and you get the sense that Legba is not the only person of color that Ellen feels she can assert a sense of command— if not ownership— over.
The film’s catalyst and most fascinating character is Brenda (played by Karen Young, who I was just reminded was the FBI agent who befriended and attempted to flip Adriana in The Sopranos) is a dissatisfied, emotionally distraught wife returning to the resort after engaging in a highly inappropriate sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy there years before, an encounter that resulted in her experiencing her first true orgasm in her entire life. Suffice to say, it takes a certain type of personal confusion to engage in and subsequently cherish a relationship with a minor, and Brenda spends the majority of the film looking as if in a trance, especially in her scenes with Legba, who spends enough time with several women in the resort that when we finally meet his family near the end of the film, it’s clear he doesn’t drop by much at home. Of the three, she’s the most susceptible in confusing lust with love, becoming fiercely protective of Legba and eventually sharing responsibility in his death.
Of the three women, Brenda most explicitly is a tourist, sexual and otherwise (even if they all are in the end— as an investigator says in the film’s closing minutes, “Tourists never die”). Early on in the film, she expresses a desire to leave the resort visit the nearby city; Ellen balks and claims to rarely visit the city at all, while Sue comments how she goes to the market occasionally to take advantage of the currency rate and fill her home with cheap statues and paintings. In the film’s third act, Legba takes her into the city, where she takes pictures of locals and buys bundled tobacco for little practical reason. Through a series of events owing to the stark realities that connect Legba and his other, more real life in Haitian culture and the city at large, he is found consorting with Brenda and eventually murdered along with a young female acquaintance, their naked bodies dumped on the beach at the resort.
Perhaps the most telling scene takes place after Legba is chased by gunpoint through the streets, temporarily splitting up with Brenda in the process. For a few moments, we’re left to wonder what’s happened to Legba, who has been put in serious danger partially due to his relationship with Brenda— a relationship that seems emotionally unequal at best.
Brenda, meanwhile, sits at the resort bar and takes some Valium to calm herself down. She’s in love, but as the film’s ending drives home, she can also travel anywhere else, engage in whatever “adventures” she’d like to, and leave whatever devastation her actions have created in the hands of the locals whose lives she’s temporarily disrupted. You get the feeling that, to her, the consequences are of a less lasting nature than a stamp in someone’s passport.