Lauren Cantet's Heading South opens with the image of a chalk-wielding hand writing upon a small slate. But in this alarmingly simple, frightfully complicated film, it's a fair question who is teaching what lesson, and to whom.
The hand belongs to Albert, a Haitian from whose point of view Cantet observes the arrival, by jet, of Brenda, an American on vacation. It is the late 1970s in Port-au-Prince, the capital of a desperately poor nation. Albert whisks Brenda to her resort, where she acquires the company of more American women. She learns that the resources they have come to exploit include young Haitian men as well as sea, sand and surf.
A few years earlier, while visiting with her husband, Brenda (Karen Young) secretly and precipitously had sex ... and her first orgasm ... with a teen-age Haitian. Now divorced and pushing 50, Brenda remains sheltered. Change comes quickly under the tutelage of Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a seemingly proper Bostonian schoolmarm, complete with British accent, who rules the little colony of vacationers. Ellen spends her summers seaside, cagily eyeing and proprietarily handling the young black men, all lithe as young deer, bare-torso'd and smiling, obliging and attentive beneath the Caribbean sun.
A favorite of the women, and of Ellen especially, is Legba (Ménothy Cesar), who's bright and playful. He was also the boy Brenda remembers so well. Soon Ellen is sharing him with Brenda, engendering an uneasy competition behind the sybaritic veil of pot smoke and tequila sunrises. And soon, unbeknownst to the North Americans, Legba has made some dangerous enemies in town. So intensifies the scent of tragedy in the offing.
Cantet's first two films, the excellent Human Resources and the sublime Time Out, were set in the world of work, with a keen eye for social class. With Heading South, based on three short stories by Dany Laferrière, his palette goes international. But Cantet's core interests remain, and his sense of social complexity is, if anything, even sharper.
It would be easy for a filmmaker to preach, or to take sides in this story, in which someone's bound to end up dead. But while Cantet does neither, he's as far from excusing anyone's behavior as from condemning it. Hypocrisy swirls as gently, and as unnoticed by the American characters, as a tropical breeze. At best, the vacationing class rationalizes its own privilege; usually the women just take it for granted. They bemoan their dating prospects up north, where they are dismissed as too old or too fat. Their needs are real; but they're quite comfortable disparaging American blacks ... then upbraiding Haitians for "racism" toward their black countrymen. Even timid Brenda sheds her qualms about buying a beautiful young man for the price of a shirt.
While Heading South is set during the brutal reign of U.S.-backed dictator Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Cantet leaves history's names out. A bullying cop; an ex-girlfriend of Legba's who's now a sex toy for government officials; the Benz-driving chauffeur who pulls a gun on Legba as he strolls through town with Brenda ... the bigger picture is instead powerfully implied. The past is given voice only through Albert (Lys Ambroise), the resort's graying head steward, who in one scene addresses the audience directly: He's from a family of patriots, and silently loathes the Americans he so graciously serves.
As in his earlier features, Cantet shoots even this morally fraught tropical island in a straightforward style, though adding (for the first time, I think) some soundtrack music ... gently haunting accordion and snatches of folk song in patois. Cantet could probably lose the direct-to-camera address from three of the women (each sitting comfortably alone in her hired room); they interrupt the narrative and don't tell us much we don't learn elsewhere. Still, the acting is very fine, with Rampling hard-eyed and imperious as Ellen, and Young seamlessly tracing Brenda's journey from superannuated naif to disillusioned romantic. Cesar shows us that Legba's good heart thrives alongside his colder calculations from need.
As in Human Resources and Time Out, Cantet tells a story that is necessarily political. But he does it so well because he understands that such a story must be a human one, in which moral questions intersect frailties of character. In assessing people, a Haitian woman says early on in Heading South, you can't tell the good masks from the bad. Some characters here can't make that distinction even regarding themselves. Some are caught in traps of circumstance; some are unable to learn from their mistakes; some seem fated to repeat history. The stripping of illusion can be a harsh process. Ironically, one character's cruel dawn comes when she learns she isn't responsible for a tragedy.
In one sequence, Cantet inverts and echoes the cinema classic Black Orpheus, with Eurydice fearfully searching for her lover while he's still living. A literary shadow, meanwhile, might be Death in Venice. But that touchstone, too, is turned upside-down: The bodies sprawled on the beach at this film's end ... unlike those at its beginning ... are not alive, and they are not those of wealthy visitors to a strange land. In French, with subtitles.