Cinema Signal:

What's Love Got to Do With It?:
Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic

. "Heading South" (aka, "Vers Le Sud")

I've no doubt that this film and its many parts hold significant and symbolic meaning to its auteur, Laurent Cantet. For him, turning his lens on sex tourism as it applies to older women and the island of Haiti circa 1970 resonates with social and psychological importance. For some of us, however, his depiction of older women pursuing lost power by exploiting young Haitian boys is a mostly depressing example of seamy privilege.

The setting is comfort: the pure magic of clean sand, private bungalows, a dedicated service staff and a warm blue sea whose worst wave is little more than a caress. The draw for the clientele of this haitian resort year in and year out, however, is the availability of young, dark, muscled bodies that glisten in the tropical sun exuding the promise of sensual nights and intimate attention.

The three visitors who occupy the premises and dominate the beach during this island season have come to recapture that part of their youth that was central to the self-confidence that derived from sexual reassurance. Though they may not be able to honestly claim the attraction they hold for the beach boys of their dreams is anything more than gifts and compliments, they're all too willing to let it go at that.

But, that doesn't mean gender politics doesn't hold sway.

What brings divorcee Brenda here this year are the thoughts she's had of young Legba (Menothy Cesar) for the past three years, since she and her ex treated the 15-year old to dinner and she, at 45, treated him to other delights. She's never forgotten what the experience meant to her in physical terms ("deepest orgasm ever!"). And, sure enough, she's no sooner unpacked and on the beach than she spots him. Only now he's not only a young man--he's also, at the moment, the presumed companion of the local ruler and Grande Dame of the beach, the domineering mind-game-player, Ellen (Charlotte Rampling).

At 18, Legba shows in smooth physical grace and patience why he's the best catch on the sands. He's the last to press an issue, and operates between the ladies with cool patience, knowing that all will come in its time. Which, of course, it does, but not without considerable angst and rather pitiful libido driven competition. Ellen shows all the earmarks of a smug, self-styled proprieter suddenly challenged for what she considered her personal property.

The third lady in the pack is Sue (Louise Portal), a not-in-competition overweight sidekick who is everyone's best friend and emotional moderator. Sue's got her own black man for nightly visitations.

The brightness of the framework comes with an unpretty picture and a dark edge. While Legba whiles away many hours in the lustful clutches of his two rich dames in combat for his attentions, he has a life that they don't suspect or think about. But co-writers Robin Campillo and director Cantet provide hints of it with brief sequences: a Haitian woman close to Legba's own age picking him up in a car and proposing a relationship that comes with personal protection; a cop chasing him and firing a handgun in the air to express his anger when he loses Legba in the intricacies of the city quarter; and Legba's delivery of hard-earned money (pun intended) to his real mother (in intentional contrast against his glamorous beach "mothers."

The brevity of these snippets create a mystery, but it's in the storytelling. Selected from the three short stories by Dany Laferriere that the movie is derived from, they seem included to suggest that our poor boy has private issues which provide a basis for the tragedy that ensues. But they come as a besides-the-point subplot and any distraction from the main story line is avoided.

Rampling, still showing her high-fashion pedigree, has no trouble conveying haughty superiority with all the negative shadings of a spiteful emotional bully. This role, finely etched as in glass, is another in a string ("Swimming Pool," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "The Statement," "The Keys To the House") that amounts to a rebirth in her mature years after many lapsed ones. And, older actresses complain they can't find good roles to play!

Rampling's snide attacks and her eventually desperate emotional level, intended to bring her adversary to her knees, is defused by the bare responses of dramatically lower-keyed Karen Young who keeps her character's obsession under tighter, if less colorful, control.

Cantet inserts into-the-camera monologues by each of the principles in order to express their characters in a way that the dialogue doesn't provide.

In the end, the pretense of romance and love is what you walk away with. It might have made a memorable study of dark needs if it didn't wear down its vitality with so much dispiriting weakness. For those looking in, what's at stake isn't worth fighting over.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Charlotte Rampling and Menothy Cesar
What a paradise is made for?

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