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Heading South

Shaky Storytelling Undermines an Otherwise Compelling Premise

Directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet (Time Out, Human Resources), Heading South ("Vers le sud") explores the personal lives of several middle-aged white women on holiday in Haiti during the late 70s and the impact their actions have on those around them. The women aren't in Haiti for just sun and fun. They're in Haiti to exorcise the power their relative wealth has over the local men.

However, they actively choose to spend most of their time at a gated beach resort, willfully oblivious of the socio-economic conditions outside the resort. Heading South comes close, but never quite says anything meaningful or insightful about colonialism, sexual exploitation, or the vicissitudes of aging in youth-centric Anglo-cultures. More importantly, the film falls short as character study or serious drama, due to Cantet's decision to dilute his focus across several characters, instead of one primary character.

Brenda (Karen Young), an American Southerner on vacation, arrives in Port-au-Prince. Brenda's guide and escort, Albert (Lys Ambroise), drives her quickly through the poverty-stricken portions of Port-au-Prince to a seaside resort that caters exclusively to foreigners. At the resort, Brenda meets Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a college professor, and Sue (Louise Portal), a French businesswoman. This isn’t Brenda’s first time at the resort, though. Brenda’s vacationed at the resort with her (now) ex-husband. She's returned to Haiti and the resort to track down Legba (Ménothy Cesar, winner of the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 2005 Venice Film Festival), one of the teenage boys who serve the middle-aged women at the resort as lovers.

Brenda's arrival causes problems, since Ellen has a semi-exclusive claim on Legba for the duration of her vacation. As Sue and the other women watch, Brenda and Ellen compete over Legba, showering him with attention, gifts, and, of course, sexual favors. Legba might live a semi-charmed existence at the resort, but outside the gated resort, poverty, corruption, and violence intrude.

A friendly soccer game involving a younger boy, Eddy (Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz), quickly takes a turn for the worse when Eddy challenges an obviously corrupt policeman. An old girlfriend, (Anotte Saint Ford), now "kept" by a powerful government official, pulls up in a limousine, promising Legba protection. Instead, the ex-girlfriend might have just put Legba's life in danger.

Cantet and his co-screenwriter, Robin Campillo, based Heading South on a collection of short stories, Chair du Maître, written by Haitian/Canadian writer Dany Laferrière. Unfortunately, with so many characters and viewpoints, the movie is an object lesson in how not to adapt a novel or short stories into another medium. Multiple characters with their own fully developed backstories are fine in fiction or literature, but generally not in film, where moviegoers expect (and want) an active central character. Cantet would have done better to focus on Ellen, Brenda, or Legba exclusively (meaning we see and experience the film from the perspective of a single character). Legba emerges as the most complex, contradictory character, pulled in different directions by multiple demands (from the women, an old girlfriend, poverty, and the volatile predicament faced by Haitians in general).

For an example of where Heading South goes astray, we need look no further than Cantet's decision to give four of his characters direct-to-camera monologues. Ellen, Brenda, Sue, and Albert are all given direct-to-camera scenes where they describe their backgrounds, offer up their backstories, and justify their actions at the beach resort, thus making them more sympathetic (they complain about being unattractive to men back home). While the direct-to-camera device doesn't add anything that couldn't have been revealed through dialogue, it's still odd that Sue and Albert are privileged with the direct-to-camera device while Legba, one of the central characters, is not.

Legba's backstory emerges conventionally, through dialogue and action. Cantet only breaks away from the insular beach resort only at the 45-minute mark to follow Legba and Eddy on a day away from the beach resort. From there, Heading South begins a tentative exploration of Legba’s conflicting obligations, ultimately making Legba the most compelling character in the film. Too bad that Cantet wasn't able to figure that out in time to salvage Heading South.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars