Thursday, July 13, 2006

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD - provocative French-language drama

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD is an intelligent drama set in a beach resort in Haiti. The resort attracts ageing lonesome women from around the world. The movie hits the ground running with a painfully tragic dialogue between a middle-aged Haitian woman and a Haitian man in the airport arrival hall. She approaches him – a stranger – and in a quiet, dignified voice, offers him her fifteen year-old daughter. Being poor and beautiful, the woman fears her daughter will end up on the streets unless she has this man’s “protection”. Immediately we are made aware that this is a chronically poor society in which poverty has made conventional morality impossible. The woman also offers the man, who refuses her offer, some advice. She says that all people wear masks – good and bad – and that it is not always possible to tell which is which. The message may seem trite, but spoken with such sincerity it attains a profundity and sadness.

The movie then changes its gaze to a run-down beach hotel. It attracts middle-aged lonely women who are more or less happy to pay for the services of a host of attractive young Haitian men. The alpha-female in this group is a French-speaking Englishwoman who teaches at Wellesley. Her name is Ellen and she is played by
Charlotte Rampling as a materialistic, cynical, bitter and imposing woman. Ellen commandeers the services of a young man called Lejba every summer. Ellen is put out when Brenda arrives also looking for Legba. It appears that three years ago, when visiting the resort with her husband, Brenda had an affair with Legba that she regards as the defining moment of her life. Brenda is mocked by Ellen for romanticising a commercial arrangement, but as the movie progresses we come to realise that it is Ellen who is the romantic and Brenda who is objectifying these young men.

I found this to be a fascinating but disturbing movie. The material seems to be handled sensitively, but by the end of the movie you realise that while many of the main characters have been given the opportunity to talk directly to the camera and explain their position, Legba remains an enigma. This, coupled with the way in which he is photographed, means that even the film-makers are to some extent objectifying him. One wonders if this is a deliberate provocation...

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD played Venice and Toronto 2005. It was released in France and Belgium at the start of 2006 and is currently playing in the US, UK, Spain, Netherlands and Italy. It opens in Germany on September 21st.

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