October 13, 2005

Heading South / The Last Mitterrand

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

After examining the corporate downsizing phenomenon with Human Resources and Time Out, Laurent Cantet shifts his focus onto Haiti’s sex tourism in the 1970s with Heading South. Shirtless muscular Haitian studs vie for the affections of desperate middle-age American housewives, who in return shower them with meals, gifts and money. The charming ways of Legba (Ménothy Cesar) cause acid-tongued Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) and newly divorced Brenda (Karen Young) to bond, exchange notes and ultimately fight. Dennis Lim of The Village Voice aptly compared the film to Ladies in Lavender, but there’s much more. Unlike The Constant Gardener, Heading South does expose white foreigners’ ignorance, stereotyping, objectification and hypocrisy vis-à-vis the locals, even if Cantet occasionally undermines Haitians’ perspectives. The devastating finale brings revelations to the protagonists, but leaves the viewers cold.

Robert Guédiguian also shifts his focus from life in Marseilles (Marius and Jeannette, The Town is Quiet) to the final days of controversial French socialist ex-president François Mitterrand. Freely adapted from Georges-Marc Benamou’s account, The Last Mitterrand depicts an unnamed president (Michel Bouquet) at the final stage of prostate cancer contemplating his legacy and confronting his missteps at the prodding of an idealist biographer (Jalil Lespert). Like Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, full appreciation of Last Mitterrand demands familiarity with its historical background or some Googling. (Notorious Vichy police chiefs who deported French Jews to the Nazi concentration camps are cited here, but neither does the film nor did Mitterrand in real life clear up his association with them.) Still, the film’s depiction of the frailty of power and ideals is universal and unassailable.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.