Friday, August 11, 2006

New Film: Vers le sud (Heading South)

One of the unmitigated commercial art house successes of the summer, Laurent Cantet's Vers le sud (Heading South) continues that director's examination of the intersection between the personal and the political in a very uncharacteristic environment -- 1970s Haiti. Leaving behind the industrial French and Swiss hinterlands of Human Resources (1999 ) and Time Out (2001) respectively, Cantet fixes his gaze on the Western hemisphere's poorest state during a moment in which that nation profited exceptionally from the pre-AIDS sex tourism industry. Specifically, Vers le sud treats the practice of middle-aged Caucasian women traveling to Haiti to experience all the sensual pleasures that their wealth will purchase them.

Vers le sud focuses upon Brenda, a woman of in her late forties, who returns to the island nation three years after she had a life-changing sexual encounter with a then fifteen year-old black boy. Upon her reappearance, the finely-sculpted young man, Legba (Ménothy Cesar), has become the favored paramour of fifty-something Wellesley professor Ellen (Charlotte Rampling). The former is in the employ of a full-service, so to speak, resort catering to all the hedonistic whims of its female clientele. However, with the arrival of Brenda, Ellen's domination of Legba, and indeed the equilibrium of the world they inhabit, is threatened. At the same time, Legba unwittingly finds himself becoming the object of desire of a well-taken-care-of lover of a Haitian military leader.

To be sure, the stakes of Vers le sud are not exclusively personal, but in fact reverberate according to the film's anti-colonialist allegory. Precisely, Cantet's picture utilizes this narrative structure to produce a parable for the Haitian people's tragic fate, being stuck between their capitalist colonizers -- from whom they readily accept the benefits of their riches -- and an oppressive state instantiated both by the aforesaid colonel and his lover and also by the resort's defacto pimp, who contrary to his inherited anti-white, anti-American sympathies, readily sells out his own people for profit. Indeed, the film's social situation is expressed acutely in an opening, pre-credit preface in which a woman attempts to sell her daughter to the resort worker in order to prevent the young girl's rape at the hands of a lawless populace that would just as soon murder the mother if it would make it easier to get to the fifteen year-old (the age being no coincidence, certainly). In other words, the position of the underclass in Vers le sud is represented by the untenable choice between being used and abused by Haiti's Western colonizers or becoming the victims of the nation's despotic -- terroristic -- regime.

Then again, the implications of Vers le sud's elegant allegory do not end with Haiti's poor, but indeed extend to the female Western subjects around which Cantet structures his story. The fact that it is women -- and not men -- who here partake in the sex industry reveals the power politics that are unique to the film's setting: they attain a desirability via their wealth, which is to say a power, that is absent in their lives in the States and Europe. Then again, this power is not unassailable as the laws of the transaction (and not the power of capital) remains immutable. Beyond the obvious implications for the romantic feelings of the middle-aged women toward Legba -- they cannot have whatever (or whomever) they want -- there is also, for the instance, the congruent moment when Brenda begins to dance like a Haitian and is quickly reined in by those who would deem it necessary to uphold the racial and social politics that define said transaction, even if it means ascribing acceptable modes of behavior to be determined by racial and social difference; in other words, the class system is static.

Nevertheless, if Cantet's narrative engages the injustice of Haitian sex tourism, it does offer a subversive counterpoint through the director's treatment of the Haitian male body: as inversion of the Mulveyan critique, it is "he" who is the object of desire, while the film's older female characters can be said to share the audience's point-of-view with respect to the fetishized body. This is not to say, however, that the film participates in the salacious: importantly, this sex tourism film never once depicts coital love on screen. In fact, when the sex act is not being elided, be it in the case of the first present-day love-making scene between Brenda and Legba or Legba and the colonel's lover connection (to be certain, we actually have no idea whether or not they ever consummate their "friendship"), it either doesn't happen, as with the one scene in which Legba and Ellen share a bed, or it is narrated through one of the film's talking head interviews, as with Brenda's clip.

Speaking of these insertions, it must be said that they lend a certain quality of the "document" to a film that is in other ways far from verite in its ethos. Having said this, there is a certain clunkiness to this stylistic choice, as could also be said of the polyphonic performances in general. Nevertheless, Cantet maintains a certain visual gracefulness otherwise, defined as it is by perpendicular, slightly below eye-level compositions and the sustained tight (identifying) framing of the director's camera. Moreover, there are the ubiquitous tans and turquoises of the Haitian beaches that are finally brought into full relief through a late travelling shot in Port-au-Prince that belatedly establishes the nation's extreme poverty -- the film's consistent natural beauty is tellingly confined to this privileged world of the resort in keeping with the picture's social critique. However, it is less in any of these details than it is in the film's narrative integration of political allegory that the success or failure of Vers le sud rests. And according to this measure, Cantet's film may just be the best new picture to be released this summer.

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