Film-Forward Review: [HEADING SOUTH]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) teaches 
Legba (Ménothy Cesar) how to swim
Photo: Shadow Distribution

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Directed by: Laurent Cantet.
Produced by: Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta & Simon Arnal.
Written by: Laurent Cantent & Robin Campillo, based on the short stories by Dany Laferrière.
Director of Photography: Pierre Milon.
Edited by: Robin Campillo.
Released by: Shadow Distribution.
Language: English & French with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: France/Canada. 105 min. Not Rated.
With: Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Louise Portal, Ménothy Cesar & Lys Ambroise.

By the time Ellen describes the young handsome black men hanging out on the beach as “a dime a dozen, take your pick,” you might think you’re hearing the voice of the equally commanding and no-nonsense Bette Davis as The Night of the Iguana’s Maxine, a role she originated on stage. Both of these characters have fled the stifling north for more uninhibited tropical climes, letting down more than their hair. In Heading South (pun probably intended), Charlotte Rampling stars as Ellen, a Wellesley French literature professor and the undisputed queen of the Haitian resort, Hotel Petite Anse. When she greets a new arrival, pale plain-Jane Brenda (Karen Young) of Savannah, GA, she really does mean it when she says welcome to paradise. Here, successful women over 40 are the center of men’s attention as long as dollar bills are not so coyly tucked in a pocket or gifts are offered in return. (This really is Tennessee Williams territory.)

Like Maxine, Ellen is quick with a quip, with withering put-downs any drag queen would envy. (Rather than look at one more painting of Rubens’ well-rounded women, she “wanted to burn the museum” instead.) She will compete with Brenda for the attention – and evenings – of Legba (Ménothy Cesar), a charming and graceful 18-year-old with a confident swagger. (Think a pre-op Michael Jackson.) However, both women only see what they want to see, not really knowing – or caring – about Legba’s life outside the resort.

Taking place in the late 1970’s, the setting doesn’t quite convince. With white male tourists no where in sight, the white women blatantly have these young men at their beck and call. This is not to say that women couldn’t possibly be sex tourists, but they seem more than three decades ahead of their time. Their lack of subtlety recalls images of Shriners on a bender. Unlike Ellen, any woman, then and now, 25 or 55, would be less flippant about confronting her paid lover in a restaurant in front of other hotel guests or the kitchen staff. And sticking out like a sore thumb, it also doesn’t seem plausible that Legba, 30 years younger than Brenda, would be seen walking hand-in-hand with her through a Port-au-Prince slum, carrying the expensive gifts she’s bought for him.

Issues of class and race are overwhelmed by the third act melodrama, where in an underdeveloped subplot, Legba is chased through the streets by a gunman, leaving Brenda to believe he’s been killed and leading her to down three valiums with her booze. A later confrontation between head-in-the-clouds Brenda and a seething Ellen verges on becoming a catfight at any moment. The episodic film is a departure for director Laurent Cantet. In his last effort, the workplace drama Time Out, the tension was carefully calibrated, making it one of the most compelling of recent French films. Instead of that film’s subtlety, Heading South has high-pitched drama that is spread out, periodically interrupting the film’s otherwise lulling rhythm. In between these moments, the viewer’s attention may take a vacation, too. Kent Turner
July 7, 2006



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