Saturday, June 16, 2007

Vers le Sud (Heading South)

The new film from French filmmaker Laurent Cantet examines the subculture of rich, older Anglo-Saxon women who come to the paradise that is Haiti to enjoy the sun, the beach and the handsome young locals who are their ‘companions’ for the time of their stay. Legba (Ménothy César) is one of the handsome locals and he is the object of desire of not one but three women: Brenda (Karen Young), Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) and Sue (Louise Portal). The three are regulars on Haiti and pretend to be friends but underneath their happy holiday appearance they all are insanely jealous of one another when one of them finds a physical validation for their existence with their young black God at the expense of the others.

The appeal of youngster like Legba is easily explained. In one of the film’s numerous direct-to-camera moments, Brenda reveals that with Legba she had her first orgasm. She was 45, three times Legba’s age. Initially she frowned on this difference but only to shrug it off two seconds later with a “It doesn’t matter, everything is different here.” Cantet’s film is set in the 1970s but does not obsess over period detail; if anything his subtle approach underlines the fact that the story could have taken place thirty years ago as well as now. The 1970s feel is further enforced by cinematographer Pierre Milon’s approach that strips the film of any cinematic value in favour of a look similar to a 1970s TV-series.

In the end, for the female friends as well as the viewers, paradise will reveal itself as just another normal world that just happens to be dressed up with white beaches and palm trees. The locals are as poor as the tourists are rich and their dallying with each other on the beach and in bed does nothing but enforce their two classes. As one of the police officers wryly notes after a local has been found dead and one of the women is worried; “Do not be afraid, a tourist here never dies.” Three pitch perfect performances from Portal, Young and Rampling and a loose structure allow for these themes to gradually surface, though at times Cantet’s leisurely pace is perhaps a bit too holiday-like. In a telling moment at the end of the film Brenda says of Legba: “Maybe I didn’t love him, but I certainly loved the way he looked at me.” Which is similar to the way I felt about the film: I did not love it, but it certainly offered an interesting diversion for the time it lasted.

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