Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Mar 17, 2006 4:06 pm 
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HEADING SOUTH

Laurent Cantet’s Heading South/Vers le sud begins in the Port au Prince airport. A Haitian woman, with the greatest sweetness and dignity, implores a man she's never met, a resort hotel employee, to take away her teenage daughter with him so that the girl will be safe. The lady explains that her husband had a respectable position but suddenly was disappeared by the Papa Doc regime; now she is penniless. The man refuses to take the girl. Instead he meets a sad-faced, sallow white woman named Brenda (Karen Young) and takes her to the hotel.

Soon Brenda is on the beach where young blacks – the favorite, Legba (Ménothy Cesar), lithe and sweet; the older Neptune (Wilfred Paul); little Eddy (Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz) and others – accompany women in their forties and fifties, of whom we observe Sue (Louise Portal), a French Canadian, and Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) – who almost seems to be in charge.

There is something voyeuristic about the first third of this movie. The way the boys fawn on the women – and the women lap it up -- is more mutually exploitive, racist, political, more starkly rich/poor, young/old – even more starkly hedonistic than we’re accustomed to seeing on the screen – so overtly shocking that even before the film has gone into release American critics have taken offense at it. Perhaps most shocking of all, we know this is the poorest and scariest country in the hemisphere at one of the worst times (the Seventies, yet these people are having immense fun, living an idyll.

Cantet is as concerned with the whole situation as he is with the few events that unfold; as concerned with the whole phenomenon of “heading south” as with Brenda’s hopeless, perhaps embarrassing, infatuation with Legba, or Ellen’s subsequent collapse, the trouble that befalls Legba – these dispersals and dispositions of the action. But the situation is such that something must happen. It’s a situation that’s satisfying to the participants but fraught with danger.

Human Resource/Resources humaines (1999), Cantet’s second film and the first one shown in the US, shows a small factory where a young man who’s just come in as part of management joins a strike to support his worker father – even though his father rejects the strike and resents this stand. The film sees labor conflicts in a very personal way, and identification (labor/management, socialist/communist) as flexible. Time Out/L’Emploi du temps (2001), the director’s third outing, is also about work, identity, and masks. A man loses his job but out of shame invents a nonexistent one and for months pretends to his family that he’s traveling with important new responsibilities, international in nature, when in fact he’s just driving around vast stretches of country. Has he lost his job, his identity, or his sanity? A bit of each, because they’re intertwined.

Heading South is also about work and masks and ambiguous roles. The white women's Haitian lovers aren’t simply sex workers or “gigolos.” At least one, the older Neptune, works as a fisherman. Free lancers, they aren’t “paid” in any organized way, just slipped some money or given presents. In return the Haitians satisfy the women in ways that can hardly be quantified. Three years ago Brenda seduced Legba at fifteen, after her late husband had been feeding him meals, and she had her first orgasm with the boy, at the age of 45. (She, Ellen, and Sue address the camera directly to describe their situation. Legba, who says it's sexier to talk little and preserve his mystery, never does.)

The film’s based on three short stories by Haitian writer Dany Lafferière, and the action feels like an updated Somerset Maugham; this is colonialism, and it’s people who take foolish risks and get burned.

I don’t think the white women are unaware of the awful regime; they just look the other way. Several times when the camera’s alone with Legba (that is, away from the white women), we see signs of the corruption, power, and danger close at hand and we realize these can crush Legba – even for almost no reason. When he’s taken for a ride in a limo with dark windows we know he’s in mortal danger.

There’s a seeming contrast between the heart-on-her-sleeve, vulnerable Brenda, from the American South, and cool, sophisticated Ellen, a Brit from Boston who’s fluent in French. Ellen cynically says the women all want the same thing – a good time – but in the end it’s Brenda who goes on pursuing pleasure and Ellen who returns to the North, her heart and spirit broken. Brenda replaces Ellen; and little Eddy, who already wants to pair off with white women, in time will replace Legba.

Heading South isn’t as clearly schematic as Human Resources or as intriguingly strange as Time Out, but brings up a wider and more troubling range of issues. Its up-front look at sexual tourism and the presence of the reborn and quietly magnificent Charlotte Rampling will insure that this third of Laurent Cantet’s movies to be distributed in the US will lead to more recognition by the American audience.

Time Out NewYork, which reviewed Vers le sud as part of a quick glance at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema of March 2006, dismissed the film as “tone-deaf about race, class and gender.” At least one vocal audience member at the Lincoln Center Q&A found its treatment of Legba “condescending” because he doesn’t address the camera. These reactions show Cantet has unintentionally touched American nerves. He's simply cooler about race, class and gender; he’s not unaware of anything, but he lets us draw our own conclusions, and he enjoys provocations and ambiguities. He continues to be an interesting filmmaker who has a special skill at showing how public and private issues intersect, and Vers le sud looks as if it will win him both more friends and more enemies. By heading South, he’s put himself more on the map.

Heading South/Vers le sud, debuted Sept. 2005 at Venice (also Toronto), Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 2006, Vers le sud opened in Paris 25 January 2006 (AlloCiné press rating 3.5).. It was purchased by Shadow Distribution for US theatrical release, which took place 7 July 2006.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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