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aka - Vers Le Sud
France 2005
Directed by
Laurence Cantet
108 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Heading South

Synopsis:  Haiti in the 1970ss is a poverty-stricken and dangerous place. But every year women come from America down to the island to bask in the sun and enjoy the attentions of young Haitian men. Ellen, (Charlotte Rampling), a Boston teacher, goes south each year to be with Legba (Menothy Cesar, while Sue (Louise Portal) hangs out with another local. But when Brenda (Karen Young) turns up to seek out Legba, with whom she also had a fling some years before, the tensions mount.

Laurence Cantet's film deals with some pretty confronting issues, socially, politically, but most of all sexually. It’s not often that a film celebrates the sexuality of women in their forties and beyond, and even more rare when these older women are enjoying the sexual attention of young virile guys.  (Or should we say buying that attention?)  But just as it can be repugnant to see older men buying the company of gorgeous young women, there is a similarly sordid overtone to this role reversal.  These women are all wealthy, in a land where the poverty is extreme and where social disdain between the classes is rife. And yet sex is the one thing that can bring them physically close whilst at the same time it is a form of power, possibly on both sides. In a country where the blacks are not served at the hotel bar, they are still desired for their sexual prowess.

Yet, this is also a film with compassion for the women, those women of an invisible age, who have passed their prime and no longer rate a passing glance from men. The novel upon which the book was based is made up of individual narratives by each of the characters, and Cantet adapts this technique for the screen by having each of the main characters talk to camera about how they feel about their lives and sexuality.  The common complaint, as expressed by Brenda, is “over 40 you only attract losers or husbands whose wives are cheating.” As Ellen says, “There’s nothing for women over 40 in Boston; but here cute guys are a dime a dozen, and I pay them to love me.” While Sue, probably the least hung up of the three says, “Here I feel like a butterfly, free alive and unattached.” Whether this freedom borders on paedophilia is a moot point.

The issue of acknowledgment of one’s existence is also a strong thread. While Legba (and the other young gigolos) is a nobody on the mean streets of Haiti, at the hotel he is always in high demand, and will always be bought a drink or whatever he needs. Here he escapes the harsh social reality of Haitian life. Similarly the women get the attention they crave, though in a cruel ending to the film, Ellen is brought back to reality with a thud. In some ways, though sex is the currency, the main characters are also looking for a brief moment of what they perceive as love.

The feel of the film is hot, steamy, romantic and tropical, yet with the constant sleazy undercurrent that   goes with sex tourism. The fascinating contrast between Ellen, with her cynical exterior, and Brenda with her little-girlish coquetry makes for good dramatic tension. Rampling, with a 40-year filmography that has often seeing her play sexually-charged characters, is terrific as the brittle yet vulnerable Ellen. Young is very strong as the woman who is not quite what she seems, while Portal is solid in a role that perhaps is a little peripheral to the main thrust of the plot.

Heading South makes for interesting and thought-provoking viewing.




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