Heading South

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(Right, scene from this not just your typical jungle fever flick)

Fifty five year old Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) teaches French Literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, while Sue (Louise Portal) is a successful businesswoman who manages a warehouse in Canada. And 48 year-old Brenda (Karen Young), a recently-divorced housewife from Savannah, Georgia, is just trying to forget an ex-husband who had never been able to satisfy her.

The only reason these formerly-frustrated females’ paths cross is because they happen to be staying at the same hotel in Haiti, a spinster’s sexual utopia where post-menopausal white women vacation in order to indulge their every carnal fantasy with young black men less than a third their age. In fact, Brenda, who now describes herself as a “bitch in heat,� openly admits to having her first orgasm ever on the beach there with a 15 year-old boy-toy.
Never pausing to question the ethics of exploiting black skin in this fashion, these hedonists approach the country’s impoverished inhabitants as if a commodity available on a quid pro quo basis. Invariably, the relationships sprouting up all around the spa are between wealthy white women offering money, maternalism and a temporary upper-class status, and handsome, eager-to-please natives who, in return, deferentially answer every booty call during their period of purchased companionship.

This is the premise underpinning Heading South, a most thought-provoking film directed by Laurent Cantet (Time Out), a historical drama set in the late Seventies against the backdrop of the instability of the regime of Baby Doc Duvalier. Based on the novel “La chair du maître� by Danny LaFerriere, the film is far more sophisticated than your typical Jungle Fever flick.

What makes this movie fascinating is how it manages to use physical desire as a metaphor, placing intimate relationships under an emotional magnifying glass to somehow examine the prevailing political and social problems then plaguing Haiti. In addition, the picture represents a rare exploration of pleasure purely from an older woman’s point-of-view.

When, for instance, our spoiled, horny heroines’ snobbish sense of entitlement has them competing with each other for the affections of Legba (Menothy Cesar), the most prized of the gigolos, it is easy to observe that their possessiveness has nothing to do with love, but rather reflects their own racism and a contempt for the lover they profess to adore.

Meanwhile, as they remain oblivious of the civil unrest simmering just on the other side of their gated resort, it is only a matter of time before the fallout of colonialism finally comes to contaminate even their erotically-charged oasis. An island paradise morphs into a frightening nightmare, but not before Ellen, Brenda and Sue get their grooves back.

Excellent (4 stars)
In French and English with subtitles.
Running time: 105 minutes
Studio: Shadow Distribution

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