2005Director: Laurent Cantet
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Menothy Cesar
or a couple reasons, you might be inspired to watch over again Ingmar Bergman’s scalding 1966 meditation on the Vietnam War, Persona. The writer Robert Emmet Long was on NPR just last week, talking about his new book of interviews with Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s long-time screen muse. Deceptively slender at just 82 minutes, Persona was Ullmann’s first film for the great Swedish director. There’s also a surprising echo on-screen right now. Discussing her work in Heading South by phone recently, New York City-based actor Karen Young said that Persona inspired French director Laurent Cantet’s approach to his film’s four monologues. That’s not the only similarity in these two movies about reversal.
Heading South is set in steamy, late-1970’s Haiti during the last days of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s bloody regime. This seems far from the chilly Swedish coast, the late-night ramblings of Bibi Andersson’s Nurse Alma and the silent retreat of Ullmann’s troubled actress character, Elisabeth Vogler. Cantet’s tale assembles a group of well-off, older North American white women who repair to an insular beach resort and the favors of young, poor Haitian men. Karen Young’s Brenda is a Georgia divorcee who’s returned, seeking Legba (Methony Cesar). She tussles over him with Charlotte Rampling’s older Ellen, a French lit professor from Wellesley College. Affable, chunky Montrealer Sue (Louise Portal of The Barbarian Invasions) completes their trio.
Direct depiction of Duvalier’s regime is spare but devastating. In Persona, Bergman needed only two short worldly references—a TV clip of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation and an older photo of Nazis marching a five-year-old Jewish boy in a cap with his hands up—to make his point about private violence mirroring public events. Canter’s film opens in Port-au-Prince Airport as the resort’s gravely fastidious manager Albert (Lys Ambroise), there to pick up Brenda, fends off a woman trying to sell her daughter to get her out of Haiti. Later, Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes pursue Legba in a panicky, desperate chase through market and alley—we don’t know exactly why, though perhaps the terror matters more than the reason. Then, the morning after he rebuffs Ellen’s offers of protection, the thugs dump his body on the resort’s beach. Ellen is shattered. Brenda—whom Cantet calls, expressly without judgment, the most optimistic character in all his films—soon plans to move on to other islands.
Heading South is based on Dany Laferrière’s La Chair du Maître (The Master’s Flesh), which Cantet read on the outbound flight from his first week-long trip to Haiti in 2001. Fresh from the Sundance Festival’s warm embrace of his film Time Out, Cantet went to visit his parents, retirees training Haitian teachers for an NGO project. The appalling poverty and class gaps he saw rapidly produced extreme discomfort. Laferrière’s book provided a ready framework for cinematic portrayal of the tourist’s position as spectator. Cantet cites Laferrière’s own remarks about physical desire and sex, as both political metaphor and the only means for contact in a society where relations between the classes are “terrifying.” Indeed Heading South reminds us that this may seem more obvious when women are vulnerable, by opening with just such a gender reversal: the desperate mother and daughter in the airport.
Laferrière’s short story collection already contained monologues. When Heading South screened in February at the Toronto Film Festival, that city’s Sun observed that the monologues—by each of the three women plus the older Haitian, Albert—create documentary-like interviews within a fiction film. But watching Persona illuminates Cantet’s remarks that Brenda especially struggles to put her sexual experience into language. He says, “It’s more unsettling to hear her talk about it than it is to watch the images of it.” This is much like Nurse Alma’s recitation of beach sex with boy strangers. Moreover, Brenda finds almost commensurate pleasure in finding the words.
Albert’s monologue—he so hates whites that he won’t touch them without gloves on—sets the stage for Ellen’s private exchange with him after Legba’s death. She confides to this very proper man, whose rank means he must listen, that Legba could make her climax as soon as he touched her—an intimate detail somehow shocking exactly because Albert is her own age. Lest we think this deep sense of impropriety simmers only among old fogeys, Legba earlier stops an innuendo-laden dance between Brenda and a boy named Eddy. Eddy hotly protests, “You’re not my father!” But do the math—Cantet scrupulously provides ages and timelines—Legba was also about twelve when Ellen first hit town.
Unfortunately most comment reduces Heading South to a story of “sexual tourism” or simply—luminous though she may be!—“Charlotte Rampling’s latest movie.” Both shortchange a film of considerably more layers. Karen Young says she never heard the phrase “sexual tourism” until the movie was three-quarter’s done, but allows it’s “an easy thing to sell it on.”
If you too recall Young as FBI Agent Robyn Sanseverino in HBO’s The Sopranos, who first insinuated herself into ill-fated Adriana’s life while rifling a clothing rack in a pricey shop, her memorably arresting quality translates well to the big screen. She’s steadily worked in film and TV since 1981. Young found the part itself and collaboration with Cantet so satisfying that “it was hard to come back from”—despite a delayed shoot (Aristide’s chaotic 2004 fall from power), left-over gun-fighting, weather so unstable the schedule changed 27 times and a daily 45-minute drive by bad road to the resort’s set over the Dominican border.
Brenda’s urgent searches for Legba—when she first arrives and later when he’s missing—frame the film’s central narrative. Her arrival startles all three women; somehow they’ve uncritically imagined their Haitian beach boys were not seeing other tourists when they went home. Among its other eventual reversals, Heading South is really more about Brenda. Her transformation contains a future, while Ellen transitions here to twilight. Young’s nuanced, often primarily physical performance is prodigious and should mark a turning point in appreciation and projects.
Further, Heading South at first seems a departure from Cantet’s previous feature films, in which he overtly focuses on “the religion of work”—a naïve son’s come-uppance against a French factory’s shift to the 35-hour week in Human Resources (1999) and an unraveling executive’s pretense to his family that he’s working after being fired in Time Out (2001). Cantet notes about this film, “You do not have poor victims on the one hand and the bastards who manipulate them on the other. Everyone gets something out of it.” That Heading South is about these young men as “workers,” whose wages include food and attention, seeps into one’s consciousness like some hot blush.
All Cantet’s films have US theatrical premieres that follow a testing of the waters at some Lincoln Center festival—this time, the RendezVous With French Cinema series in March. His features are all available from Netflix, as is the made-for-TV Les Sanguinaires (1998), one of seven pieces anticipating the Millennium that toured the globe in 1999. Even The Troubles We’ve Seen—young Cantet was, perhaps formatively, first assistant director of Marcel Ophuls’ doc on the history of combat journalism—screened in New York in 1994. His new project, a fiction film with non-professional actors, is based on interviews with Hurricane Katrina survivors. Probably no walk on the beach either.
Heading South opened June 7 in Manhattan. It opens July 21 in Los Angeles and in limited release nationwide afterward. Hear Nancy Keefe Rhodes’ interview with actor Karen Young broadcast on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on Thursday, July 27th at 8:00 p.m. DST via web-streaming on www.waer.org.