Imagine you are Charlotte Rampling. Once you were young and beautiful. Now, no man your age (55) is interested in your body. Also imagine this is the late '70s, before AIDS, before the Cold War had cracked into closer scrutiny of those negligible compass points with no oil, no armies, no power. Now look at Haiti—a former colony, broke, ruled by ruthless dictators, flat on its back. Look at its alluring beaches, roped off like Club Med, with young, dark bucks eagerly offering their sexual services beneath the swaying palms. For only dollars a day, you can sleep with a muscled, attentive teenager, no questions asked. No one's watching. No one's stopping you. No one's judging. Can it really be so wrong?
Having brilliantly explored the subject of work in Time Out and Human Resources, Laurent Cantet now turns to the trickier subject of Third World sex workers and the (comparatively) rich tourists who patronize them. He follows three white women of a certain age to Haiti, where handsome black studs are "a dime a dozen," according to imperious Ellen (Rampling), a Wellesley professor. "Welcome to paradise," she tells a late-blossoming newcomer, Brenda (Karen Young from The Sopranos), who falls for the head boy on the beach. But Cantet follows Legba (Ménothy Cesar) away from the beach and out of his rivalrous clients' sight, revealing the harsh Duvalier-era social reality they chose to ignore. This handsome kid, perhaps 19, has no other option but to work (there's that Cantet keyword of oppression) as a gigolo for these unwitting, hennish sex junketeers. He has a family, friends, and a conscience, but it takes a violent shock for them to finally realize as much.
Based on stories by the Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, Heading South lets these women speak to us directly, and theirs is not exactly the language of colonial oppression. Brenda appears the most sympathetic and grateful for Legba's tender ministrations; recalling how he gave her her first orgasm at age 45, she seems a blind woman newly given sight. Ellen mocks Brenda's romantic yearnings, but her sarcasm about love ("Leave me my illusions") hints at more complicated feelings. Significantly, however, Legba never speaks to us. He shows Brenda a bit of urban poverty, and we watch as he finesses his way through violent streets—clearly he understands the Duvalier regime; possibly he's working against it. Like the businessman in Time Out who pretends he's employed to keep up appearances, Legba is trapped by his role in this economic scheme—defined by his clients' lusting eyes. The movie is somewhat clumsy and unsatisfying if you think it's about those women. Understood as Legba's story, it's tragic. BRIAN MILLER