Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 29, 2006
As a rule of thumb, I do not bother to write reviews of bad films, with the occasional exception made for something like Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” with its glorification of the unspeakably evil Howard Hughes. There is even more leniency for independent films, especially those not made in the USA, that at least have the stamp of integrity going for them.
But Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South” was such a real disappointment measured against the director’s aspirations that I feel moved to write about it. After reading the press release, my expectations ran high:
With Human Resources and Time Out, Laurent Cantet has established himself as one of French cinema’s leading screen realists and analysts of social discontent. His third feature — an investigation of sexual tourism — is arguably his most achieved, and certainly his most challenging. The setting is a beach resort in late 70s Haiti, where middle-aged North American women go to be sexually pampered by young black men, rewarding them with economic and quasi-maternal favours. “Welcome to Paradise,“ says the resort’s alpha female Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) to newcomer Brenda (Karen Young), but it’s clear that this is anything but paradise. Outside the hotel’s artificial bubble, the Duvalier regime is in power, and it can’t be long before Legba (Menothy César), the young man favoured by both Ellen and Brenda, falls foul of the all-powerful Macoute militia.
Cantet’s decision to make middle-aged women the symbol of colonialism, racism and sexual exploitation could not be more wrong-headed. Rather than appearing as predators, they seem more like desperate and pathetic souls out of a Tennessee Williams play. Furthermore, there is an element of puritanism that makes sexual pleasure, even if purchased on the market, an evil roughly on a par with Duvalierism. The young male prostitutes are depicted as being caught in a vise made up on one side by lonely women on a vacation and Ton Ton Macoutes on the other. This is unbalanced, to say the least.
“Heading South” marks a real drop-off from the achievements of Cantet’s first film “Human Resources,” which I described as “one of the finest movies ever made about the labor movement.”
His next film “Time Out” signaled that Cantet was no longer interested in making straightforward films about social problems but was determined to reveal deeper existential truths, as they put it in educated circles. The protagonist of “Time Out” is an unemployed French executive who is ashamed to tell his family that he has lost his job. He puts on a suit each morning, kisses them goodbye and proceeds to drive around all day killing time. But this is not a simple dramatization of the plight described in Louis Uchitelle’s “The Disposable American”. Cantet uses this situation as a launching pad for a semi-Hitchcockian crime thriller in which the hero cons old friends and business associates into making bogus investments. The Village Voice, long addicted to “subverting” anything as boring as the topic of unemployment, heartily endorsed Cantet’s progress:
“It would be reductive to read Time Out as a parable on the shame of unemployment. Vincent rejects several career opportunities throughout, legitimate and otherwise. A return to the workforce is inconceivable, the ultimate defeat. More to the point, his mounting anxiety notwithstanding, Vincent has earnestly reinvented himself as a petit-bourgeois life-actor, exulting in the thrill of spinning–and existing within–a fiction. But lying is desperately hard work–a bitter irony that does not elude the film.”
Yes, that’s what the world needs, doesn’t it: displays of reinvention and bitter irony. Much more “complex” than boring old tales of men made redundant by the forces of capitalist concentration. That would be so retro, so 1930s.
“Heading South” is based on a collection of short stories by Haitian author Dany Laferrière, for whom sex seems to occupy the place that money occupied in “Das Capital,” based on the evidence of this collection and other works such as “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired” and “Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?” I guess the answer to the last question is that it must sell books that get made into screenplays. In the press notes for “Heading South,” Laferrière states, “We’re dealing with a small group of very rich people who can buy anything, or who think they can buy anything, people or objects, and with others who are ready to sell the only thing they possess, their youth and their body.”
Now I don’t want to sound like I am insensitive to the suffering of the Haitian people, but on a scale of 1 to 10, the problem of spinster schoolteachers from New England (the character played by Charlotte Rampling in a losing effort) paying for sex on the Haitian beaches ranks something like minus five.
In the final scene of “Heading South,” a voice-over of the female characters (plucked clumsily from Laferrière’s prose) proclaims her desire to sexually conquer other black bodies throughout the Caribbean, from Guadalupe to Cuba. Granted that sexual tourism is a problem in Cuba, one might think that it is more than compensated for by free education, health-care and guaranteed employment. I can imagine a hard-hitting film about the problem of sexual tourism, but this film is not one of them–except as an example of what not to do.
Now if I were to make a movie about Haiti, I’d adapt Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift,” one of the finest novels of the 1980s. This is the story of a New Hampshire working-class guy named Bob Dubois who turns to transporting Haitian immigrants ‘illegally’ into the United States out of economic desperation. Although Russell Banks is not Haitian or Black for that matter, his portrait of the dirt-poor Haitian émigré Vanise Dorsinville, who leaves Haiti with her infant son and 13-year-old nephew Claude, is one of the more memorable I have seen in modern fiction.
The book has a cinematic sweep that in the right hands would turn into a “Grapes of Wrath” for the modern age. That, of course, would be too much to expect.