Tropical Maladies

A smart, sentimental view of pre-AIDS sex tourism

Laurent Cantet's previous features, Human Resources and Time Out, are the work of a filmmaker drawn to workaday political scenarios; Heading South, his evocation of pre-AIDS, old-school sex tourism, begins with a poignant evocation of ordinary terror. A middle-class woman, desperate to protect her nubile daughter, approaches a dignified professional with hopes of selling him the girl: Haiti, 1979.

Albert (Lys Ambroise) declines; as upper-class as he appears, he's also a servant, waiting at the Port-au-Prince airport to pick up Brenda (Karen Young), a newly single white American in her late '40s. The modest resort where Albert is employed as maître d' is an erotic utopia for such women. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a Wellesley professor and queen of the beach, welcomes Brenda to "paradise" with the forthright assurance that "you're going to have a ball."

Cantet takes a more sentimental view of sex tourism than Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Platform was published a few years before Heading Southwent into production. Still, despite its progressive interest in what Cantet terms the "desire of women," Heading South cannot but illustrate Houellebecq's notion of sex tourism as a function of the globalized economy. Albert's disapproval notwithstanding, the little resort is a safe zone allowing its female guests to openly pair off with youthful locals. The main drama inside this bubble is the war Brenda wages against Ellen for the favors of the beautiful Legba (Ménothy Cesar). Outside the bubble . . . it's a tropical terror state.

An intelligent movie, not so much salacious as affecting but ultimately less analytical than overwrought, Heading South makes its points in the first 20 minutes. Cantet may not name the dictator Baby Doc nor his dread enforcers, the Tonton Macoutes, but he's hardly subtle in mapping Haiti's social hierarchy or his characters' psychologies. Periodically, several principals—including Brenda, Ellen, and Albert—share their thoughts with the camera. Legba is given no such moment, although he has several crucial scenes in the context of his other life, but this is Cantet's realism. If the object of desire is conspicuously without a subjective voice it may be because in this ruthless paradise his body is his only capital and his life is worth nothing.

 
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