Vers le Sud

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Love for Sale

Ellen with her summertime lover, Legba, in Vers le Sud.

Like many French directors, Laurent Cantet has always taken an interest in thorny social issues. His last two movies, L’Emploi du Temps (Time Out) and Ressources Humaines (Human Resources) dealt with the effects of corporate layoffs on the lives of ordinary people.

In his new film, Vers le Sud (Heading South), Cantet has tackled a very different issue: middle-aged white women from the north (in this case, the United States and Canada) traveling south to Haiti at the end of the 1970s in desperate search of love, affection and (not least) sex, which they are unable to get from the men at home. While enjoying a vacation in a parasitical beach resort, they also enjoy the tenderness and sexual attentions of young local men, paying for their favors with petty cash and small gifts.

The film focuses on a trio of women: Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), Brenda (Karen Young) and Sue (Louise Portal). Ellen, the eldest at 55, is an older version of Samantha in Sex in the City. She loudly and cynically proclaims how much she enjoys sex and scorns emotional attachments. The arrival of Brenda disrupts her carefully constructed holiday setup, however. Brenda, who had an affair with Ellen’s handsome young summertime lover Legba (the excellent Ménothy Cesar) three years before, has been obsessed with him ever since.

At first dismayed to find that Legba now “belongs” to Ellen, Brenda doesn’t lose much time before moving in and recapturing him from her rival. Sue, happy with her muscle-bound fisherman lover, acts as a friend and mediator to both.

Beyond the main story of sex, love and jealousy, the film also offers glimpses of the horrors of everyday life in Haiti. We see the viciousness of the Tonton Macoute thugs and the fear that keeps people from reacting to it, and we learn that Legba’s ex-girlfriend has been forced to become the mistress of a powerful colonel.

All these elements brew up into an inevitable tropical storm with serious consequences.

While the film struggles valiantly to get at psychological truths, it only partially succeeds. Certain elements ring true, such as the revelation of the falsity of Ellen’s cynicism, but the parallel turnabout in Brenda’s character is just a bit too pat. And, while we certainly get inside the heads of the three women – they even tell their stories in documentary-like monologues – we never learn what motivates the young men who sell themselves to these women and seem to care about them. The money and gifts are obviously one reason for this game of “soft” prostitution, but is there more to it than that?

Cantet deserves credit for dealing with this difficult subject without oversensationalizing it and for making a film that’s enjoyable to watch, with almost no yawn factors.

Rampling, by the way, has come out of the coma she often seems to be in on the screen, and is fairly plausible as Ellen.

Heidi Ellison

© 2006 Paris Update

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