'Heading South': The Job Of Sex in the Third World

Eyes wide shut: Charlotte Rampling and Ménothy Cesar in
Eyes wide shut: Charlotte Rampling and Ménothy Cesar in "Heading South." (Shadow Distribution)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006

You see it all over the Third World, anywhere poverty and beauty converge under balmy skies, and the liquor is sweet and hits hard. A Westerner, north of 45, with fallen arches, hair, belly and spirit, clearly no longer sexually competitive in the meat markets of the big city, shows up, hunting an arrangement.

The arrangement will be with a younger, suppler body, owned by a younger, duller, more beautiful person. The two will share not an hour of anonymous sex, a la the streetwalker and her beau, but something tangentially more dignified: a kind of ersatz relationship, with life narratives exchanged, laughs and drinks sampled to lubricate the awkwardness, day trips to the mountains or the monuments to eat up the afternoon hours, and then discreet nights of sweat and bliss. Finally, certain monies will be quietly exchanged, "gifts," not payments, addresses passed between the two for the letters that will never get written, the photos that will never be sent, and . . . that's it. Hello, Monday morning, back in the office. Hmm, you look so refreshed . Have a good time down south? That glow in your face? You must have gotten good weather. Meanwhile, you are thinking, Good Lord, I didn't even notice the weather.

That casually sexual-emotional bit of business -- so institutionalized in Cuba, the young women have a name, jineteras -- is at the heart of Laurent Cantet's new film "Heading South," but it has a slight twist. All is as I have described, except the genders are reversed. The old bodies happen to be female and the new bodies male.

Given the director, a movie on gigolo politics seems a surprise. Cantet has quietly achieved a world reputation, but his specialty is the workplace film. He understands the dynamics of that hideous human institution known as "the office" as well as anyone except Ricky Gervais. But you have to understand that, in a strange way, "Heading South" is a workplace film, and it chronicles the same pathologies as "Time Out" or "Human Relations": annoyance, ennui, resentment, foolishness, losing control, being late, having a bad attitude, cliques, conspiracies, pointless plots, counterproductive energy. It's just that for Legba, the workplace is between the thighs of Ellen, Brenda and Sue.

Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is black and beautiful, perhaps 18, with one of those bodies full of knobs and planes. He's thin where he should be thin and broad where he should be broad. When he smiles, you think of diamonds, and that gleam is reflected in his bright eyes. The place is a sultry beach resort in Baby Doc's brutal Haiti in the late '70s, before that portly brigand flew to wherever. It's a land of fear, ruled by thugs called the Ton-Tons Macoutes, and in certain alleyways, if you are black, the wrong word or the wrong glance or the wrong place at the wrong time will get you dead fast -- so in a sense, Legba is a refugee from the slaughters outside the gate. He knows he's safe amid the turistas .

Ellen (the great Charlotte Rampling), Brenda (TV pro Karen Young) and Sue (Louise Portal) realize all this, very much in the way most Westerners realize the truths of the Third World. That is, the earnest, political, concerned 1 percent of their brains says, Oh, it's so awful, it's so cruel, it should be changed, or something. Then the other 99 percent chimes in: Par-tay, par-tay, par-tay, and the revolution is canceled.

The story essentially takes off from Brenda's inability to play by the rules. And there are rules and if you disobey them, hell must be paid. The rule is: Enjoy the body, the smile, the bright eyes, the intimate exchange of emotions; laugh, drink, dance the night away, but . . . don't get involved. He must stay in his world and you must return to yours and if you pretend you have fallen in love, you just destroy things for everybody.

Brenda, who had visited three years earlier, returns, convinced that what she feels in her loins is love, not want. She races across the sand to find the boy sleeping and stares at him as if Botticelli just painted him or Hugh Hefner just put him in a magazine spread. She awakens the young prince, and it's possible that he even remembers her; but soon she learns that he's also involved with Ellen.

Cantet has a wonderful sense of each of these women. Brenda, product of a divorce and a great deal of family disappointment, could easily mistake lust for the other L-word, and Young's ability to mix doughty and damaged in the same stroke is superb. Ellen, shrewd and tart of tongue, is an intellectual (she teaches French lit at Smith) and she knows exactly what's going on. With her Queen Bee wit and sense of entitlement and those haughty Lauren Bacall eyes (were Bacall and Rampling separated at birth or is the younger a secret issue of the older?), she expects to rule, and generally does. Except she cannot really, though she believes she can, rule her own emotional life. Finally, Sue is a good bloke, a French Canadian, probably the healthiest of the three; she knows the score and has adjusted her expectations appropriately.

So for a while, the film is a kind of game of boy, boy, who's got the boy? Each of the three tries to capture the heart of the fellow, with poor Brenda the most blubbery and self-pitying. Money, clothes, time, attention, she can't stop giving the kid stuff. Clever, beautiful Ellen knows that all comes to they who wait and plot; and Sue keeps on smiling.

But the horror outside leaks inside. For, unknown to the women, Legba does have a Haitian life. He has a mother, he had friends, and he has enemies. A former neighbor appears to be the mistress of someone, and is bodyguarded by a brute who must have connections with the Ton-Tons Macoutes; he has a license to kill and no responsibilities. Soon he is stalking the boy, and maybe even being seen about Port-au-Prince with a 50-year-old white woman and bags from all the fine French stores won't buy Legba the dispensation he hopes.

The movie doesn't make the mistake that so many Westerners-in-World-3 make, where they concentrate so fully on the horror of the posh observers, they pass on the horror of the exploited. What happens is horrible, and perhaps its biggest horror is how helpful it is to Westerners. It's a metaphor for the ways we look but don't feel a whole lot about what happens in the world's gutters.

One of the women returns home, embittered; one takes the events as a sexual liberation, and is last seen heading even farther south, on the hunt for yet more young, smooth-skinned men of color. Here's what she's learned from the tragedy: She's gotta have it.

In its way, "Heading South" is a piercing indictment, though it makes its point without much screaming, hectoring or preening. It's quietly terrific.

Heading South (108 minutes, at the Avalon with subtitles for French and native patois) is rated R for scenes of violence and intense sexual content.

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