Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Film Review--Heading South

SEVERE SPOILER ALERT--I am going to give away the ending to the movie here. So if you care about such things and read on, don't blame me. Honestly, knowing the ending of a movie before I watch it doesn't bother me, but I know I'm in the minority.

I had extremely high expectations for Heading South. It's a great premise--middle-aged female sex tourists in Haiti in the late 1970s. The film centers around two of these women, Brenda from the United States and Ellen, a British woman teaching French Lit at Wellesley, as well as Legba, the male escort that both women fall in love with. A few years earlier, Brenda had come to the Haitian resort with her husband. They picked up Legba from the streets. Some days later, Legba and Brenda are hanging on a beach. Brenda basically rapes Legba. She and her husband go back to Georgia. Brenda obsesses about Legba, leaves her husband, and comes back to Haiti. Ellen on the other hand has been coming to Haiti every summer for the past 6 years. She's given up on meeting any men in Boston and instead wants the sex and companionship she can pay for in the Caribbean. Ellen and Legba have been sleeping together but when Brenda comes along, competition erupts between the two. Legba is confused but pretty much does what he wants with who he wants.

There are many good things about this film. The acting is first rate. Charlotte Rampling is wonderful as Ellen. No surprise there--Rampling has taken more challenging roles than any actor of her generation going back to The Night Porter and in recent years, the films of Francois Ozon. Ménothy Cesar, as Legba, also nails his role. He shows Legba to be both the confident, streetwise young man of Haiti and also a scared and abused kid. Lys Ambroise is outstanding as Albert, the hotel manager. Both Cesar and Ambroise seem to be amateur actors, though perhaps they have careers in whatever passes for the theatre and film in Haiti. I was less enthused at first by Karen Young as Brenda, but over the course of the film, I came around. She did a great job of showing just how loathesome Brenda is while keeping the character realistic.

The film also does a good job cutting to the heart of the racism underlying the entire enterprise. Ellen is smart enough to know what she is doing. She knows she is taking advantage of these men and justifies to herself, but she knows that it is part of a racist system. Plus, she respscts who they are and their independence of choice, a key part of the film it turns out. Brenda though sees these young black men as "natural." They are black sex objects to her, nothing more. She reminds me of how many Anglos viewed New Mexico Indians from the early twentieth century until today--as blank canvases to paint their own desires upon. For Brenda, these young black men exist to fulfill her sexual desires.

I also loved the monologue vignettes the film uses to get at the heart of the characters. First, they reminded me of the charming pretensious of 1960s cinema. It made me want to watch The Passion of Anna again. Brenda talks about she had her first orgasm with Legba. Albert furiously talks about his own famiy's history fighting American imperalism, showing the self-hatred he has with his job of serving Americans at the hotel. But as he says, Americans corrupt everything with their money.

But the first of the two problems I with the movie comes from these vignettes. Why the lack of black voices? While 3 women talk, Albert is the only Haitian. Where is Legba? Legba was raped by Brenda at the age of 15. Brenda is in love with him. Legba moves to protect a small boy from Brenda when they start dancing, so clearly he is conflicted by her presence. Yet we don't hear from him. Hearing from the boy would also have added a useful voice. I'm not sure what the director, Laurent Cantet, had in mind by excluding these voices. For me, it was almost racist. The story becomes far more about the women than the men they buy. I felt it left a gaping hole at the center of the movie.

Worse, Legba dies. 2/3 through the movie, a sub-plot develops where Legba meets an old girlfriend who now sleeps with a powerful military officer. They talk in the car driven by the unseen military man's henchman. I guess, though it's never quite explained, the henchman tells his boss of the conversation and he has them both killed and their bodies dumped at the resort. What a cop out. Why does Legba have to die? Both Ellen and Brenda are distraught and in the movie, the death helps get at the moral center of each, or the lack thereof in Brenda. She spends the night of his death at first looking for him but then getting laid by some other black guy. She then leaves for other islands to explore their sexual possibilities.

But Legba's death damages the film. Again, it focuses the film on the women rather than the Haitians. The film could have had a powerful ending with Legba confronting Brenda about the damage she caused him. Or nothing could have happened. She could have got sick of him and moved on to Dominica or somewhere. Such an ending would have shown us Brenda's lack of soul and the corruptness of Haiti without a pointless death. Why are filmmakers so scared of nothingness? My God, we all need to watch the films of Yasujiro Ozu to see what kind of emotional punch a talented director can deliver with patience and quietude. And while the film did need some discussion of Haiti's social problems, Cantet could have done this in a number of ways without killing Legba.

Ultimately, Heading South is still a good film. But it is like a new album by a favorite musician--I am so hyped for it that any flaws seem magnified. What could have been a great movie is merely a good one.