April 02, 2006

Heading South

Directed by Laurent Cantet Starring Charlotte Rampling

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Colonialist attitudes are still prevalent in the West even as actual colonies become a thing of the past. From politics to entertainment, the portrayal of foreignism variously conjures up exoticism, mysticism, pity, or fear. Laurent Cantet’s Vers le sud confronts these reflexive notions among its affluent protagonists and, by extension, its audience. Set in 1978, the film explores sex tourism in Haiti during the last days of the Duvalier. Sex-starved North American women of a certain age flock to the country for hot summer flings. They might not be exceptionally attractive by our ageist standards, but in Haiti they effortlessly score the objects of their desires simply by virtue of being atop the class hierarchy. Through conversations and interactions, their ignorance, stereotyping, objectification and hypocrisy vis-à-vis the locals casually emerge.

“At home black guys don’t interest me. It’s different here because they are closer to nature,” says Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), an acid-tongued 55-year-old Wellesley professor who has made annual trips there for six years . She takes up with the stunning and charismatic Legba (Ménothy Cesar), and chastises another tourist for dressing him like “black guys in Harlem.” Little does Ellen know that beneath the façade of an innocent island youth, Legba leads a dangerous life that embodies the worst stereotypes she has projected onto African Americans. Given her background and stature, her decidedly un-P.C. assertions regarding the locals threaten to take viewers aback. Most films in the West that involve foreignism simply gloss over this colonialist mindset and unwittingly perpetuate it.

Haitian hustlers here are eager to subject themselves to the tourists’ patronage in exchange for free meals, gifts and cash. Their dependency is reminiscent of third-world women practically throwing themselves at GIs in Vietnam/Korean war flicks. Those women’s American dreams reaffirm notions of Western superiority. Since men typically assume the roles of providers to whom women naturally cling both on and off screen, the scenario’s gender reversal in Vers le sud underscores racial and class disparity. Another sharp contrast is the fact that Legba shows no inclination for pursuing life, liberty, and happiness in the States.

Ellen’s maternal instincts take over, and Legba becomes her charity case. He eventually flares up and tells her, “You’re not my mother.” His reaction repudiates a certain liberal view that the underprivileged necessarily welcome attempts to inculcate instill in them the supposedly higher living standards and loftier values of their benefactors. This kind of humanitarian bent generally appears to be something noble, from the documentary Born into Brothels to the dramatic The Interpreter. Still, the efforts can seem patronizing all the same. Only a few films, like Manderlay and Vers le sud, actually address how these initiatives backfire when well-to-do protagonists fail to recognize the full scope of problems or the repercussions of their actions. In instances involving third-world deprivations such as the one here, there is always some subconscious colonialism on the part of the first-world protagonists in presumptuously appointing themselves saviours.

Cantet’s film addresses its characters’ remorse over the poverty in Haiti as well as the self-serving motives behind their charity. Attention from the irresistible Legba is the tonic that boosts Ellen’s ego, but she only asks him to join her in Boston after he gets in trouble. And viewers can safely conclude that black men ultimately don’t fit in her scene back home. Most other films entitle their protagonists to this kind of self-absorption instead of examining it. The Constant Gardener is about personal mission, global conspiracy, and inflicting liberal guilt onto viewers by depictions of a poor and unruly Africa, and it broaches the outrageous events in Kenya only to embellish the magnitude of the corporate villain’s callousness and the saintly martyrdom of Rachel Weisz’s character Tessa. Its protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) hardly interacts with the Kenyan populace at all.

Vers le sud is not without its flaws. It occasionally seems like a poor imitation of a poor film, Casa de los babys, which has a group of American women in Mexico looking to adopt orphans. Like Sayles, Cantet tells the story through the dissimilar perspectives and experiences of a diverse group of characters in a very precise setting. But instead of gracefully shifting through the various viewpoints, he and co-writer Robin Campillo devise first-person confessionals—complete with title cards—with the characters directly addressing the camera. In a monologue both titillating and repulsive, recently divorced Southerner Brenda (Karen Young) tearfully recounts propositioning the then 15-year-old Legba and reaching her first orgasm at the age of 45 during her first visit to Haiti with her husband three years previous. While at times revealing, these vignettes are redolent of something from an amateurish daytime-TV movie of the week.

Albert (Lys Ambroise), maître d’hôtel at the beach resort where the ladies stay, is the only Haitian character with a narrative voice. His father fought against the first American occupation in 1915 and told him “white men are lower than monkeys.” Albert observes the skin trade from a much different angle than the tourists. He asserts that dollars are far more damaging than cannons, and his trepidation turns out to be quite prophetic. Although the film primarily concerns the tourists’ narrow point of view, the omission of Legba’s narrative voice is incomprehensible considering that Albert gets his say.

With Ressources humaines (1999) and L’emploi du temps (2001), Cantet has established a reputation due to his penchant for the clash between professional and personal identities. Both films address the modern phenomenon of corporate downsizing in his native France and its complications on personal and family lives. But his latest signals a deliberate change of pace: This first try of his at a literary adaptation tackles three short stories by Haitian-born author Dany Laferrière that bare no resemblance to the milieu of the director’s previous work. The only connection here to his past thematic threads is the fact that Legba’s professional life is almost illusionary, and his reality outside the resort is harsher than any of his benefactors can imagine. It recalls Aurélien Recoing’s character Vincent desperately keeping up the appearance of employment in L’emploi du temps. But Vers le sud isn’t Legba’s story at all.

Cantet illustrates Haiti with a neutral approach, without fashioning it as some sort of dangerous, savage land as Meirelles did with Nairobi in The Constant Gardner and Rio in City of God. Still, Vers le sud almost trivializes its devastating historical and political backdrop. Perhaps reflecting the tourists’ naiveté and the resort’s insular nature, the film references atrocities only in passing (a cop bullying a street vendor, a mention of the lavish nightly feast at the presidential compound, an unfathomable assassination). Cantet’s previous features show he’s capable of more complex context and richer characters. With its moral ultimately turning out to be something as trivial as the prologue’s contention that everyone necessarily wears a mask, the film has unfortunately missed the mark amid weightier and worthier subject matter.

From Cinema Scope No. 25, Spring 2006. © Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.