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Vers Le Sud (Heading South) – sexual colonialism

Vers le Sud

Vers le Sud

Vers Le Sud (Heading South) – Laurent Cantet

(BBC Prize Review)

Is sex the paradigm human experience? A pool of thought for ever poisoned by Freud. Presidents, kings and queens, tycoons and politicians – all seem willing to risk everything for it. It sells everything from spanners to hot dogs; politicians to flatulence pills. It drives most fiction, films, books, even lord help us – computer games.

In Cantet’s deceptively simple, rather cold but subtle film, sex defines age and self-esteem. Sex-as-paradigm poses acute problems to the ever-expanding older constituencies, and markets, of affluent western democracies. How to get it as often as you want? And as good as it used to be? Or more painfully, as you wish it could have been? But bless French filmmakers – they seem to know instinctively that sex is far too serious to take too seriously. Perhaps the French make the best films about sex because almost uniquely, they see it as a necessary but not a sufficient goal in life. Their passion for ideas, including those about sex, is their paradigm. Even if on-the-ground as we might say, it may screw up their sex a little.

A political sub-text underlies the sexual dilemmas of the early, middle, and late-middle aged women Cantet’s story explores. (Middle-age now stretches to about 70. People become old either overnight or when they get sick). Each of three women sex-tourists to 70’s Haiti tell us their story straight to camera. Tight-assed, controlling, Ivy League teacher Ellen (Charlotte Rampling); failed romantic, valium fuelled Brenda (Karen Young); and the deliciously earthy, plumply sexy, Sue (Louise Portal). Ellen and Sue return each year to their beachside hotel where room service takes on a whole new meaning. The lithe, beautiful, quintessentially youthful Legba (Menothy Cesar) leads a small group of fun-loving, light-hearted young men who understand that they must provide sex artfully merchandised as romance, or even in Brenda’s case, love. This is once-married Brenda’s first return trip to find the beautiful 15 year-old boy (Legba) who gave her her first orgasm three years before.

The poverty and random violence of Baby Doc Duvallier’s corrupt Haiti surrounds but does not enter this haven of sexual satisfaction, and source of foreign currency, presided over by an impassive, disapproving restaurant manager Albert (a dignified Lys Ambroise). Cantet sets his political tone in the opening shots where Albert is approached at the airport by a mother asking him to ‘adopt’ her beautiful young daughter to enable her to escape the inevitable life that poverty in Haiti prescribes. She says to Albert “It is hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one.”

Through Ellen, Cantet explores the eternal French pre-occupation with the contradiction between love and freedom; abandon and control; passion and possession. Rampling’s austere, superior Ellen guards her special relationship with Legba with the latent menace of a lioness. Brenda’s effort to use Legba to fill the passionate void in her life arouses Ellen’s jealous contempt. A compassionate Sue mediates between these two extremes while taking simple satisfaction in uncomplicated sex from Neptune who does a bit of fishing on the side.

If Cantet’s film were just about sex, it fails. These interesting, complex women are reduced to and defined solely by, their sexual needs. On that simplistic level they are sad, pathetic and passively manipulative. But as a metaphor for the disturbing relationship between western, especially US, culture and poor countries, there is much power here. Hiding from the real poverty and suffering around them they are indifferent or passively accepting of the repressive regime under which they pursue the satisfaction of their own selfish and personal needs. All is reduced to transaction – sex and passion are fashioned into a tourist’s love trinket. Cheap and tacky but eminently saleable. Glimpses of a carefree innocence of sun-loving southern youth are mere echoes of a vital but different culture corrupted by economic brute force and necessity. As Albert observes, his father would never shake the hand of an American as he considered them corrupting. If a salesman gets you to speak to him – he’s got you. As an image of quiet, subversive, emotional and cultural imperialism, sex tourism, even in this genteel, well-heeled form, Cantet’s film has a political resonance that is, necessarily, at the expense of the potential emotional depth of his characters’ relationships. That it is Legba who pays the price for his clients’ indulgences is as inevitable as it is only too realistic.

But a metaphor, even a powerful one, is not enough to sustain a film. Neither theme – ‘middle-aged’ sexuality nor cultural subversion is well enough developed to satisfy. We want to know and understand better these women and their adjustment to age. And the film marginalises our sense of the corrupt and harsh realities of political repression just as much as it does within the storyline it plays out.

(July 2006)

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