“I always said when I was old, I’d pay young men to love me.”
It’s the 70s, and three single female tourists–all middle aged and white–make a habit of taking their holidays at a lush, private Haitian resort in Laurent Cantet’s film Vers le Sud (Heading South). Wellesley French literature professor Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is 55, and she spends all summer at the resort and has done so for the last five years. Brenda (Karen Young) is 48 and she comes from Georgia. Brenda and her husband were on holiday at the resort three years ago, and it was during a stolen moment that Brenda had sex with local lad, Legba (Menothy Cesar), and she never forgot the brief liaison. The third woman is Sue (Louise Portal), a plump, uncomplicated and genial woman who can’t really seem to establish relationships with men.
When the film begins, Ellen and Sue are firmly ensconced in the languorous setting of the Haitian resort. They spend their days lolling on the beach, drinking exotic concoctions, and being the center of attention of a band of young, husky islanders. Brenda arrives, it seems, with the goal of reconnecting with Legba, and discovering if that moment they shared three years ago meant as much to him as it did to her.
In intimately confessional moments, each of the three female tourists argues her case for being at the resort and why they find it acceptable to whoop it up on the beaches while they feel constrained to behave differently in their natural environments. All three women bemoan the lack of suitable men at home, but none of them really question exactly why they feel so uninhibited in Haiti. To the viewer, however, it seems apparent that the relationships Ellen and Sue enjoy in Haiti bear no consequences. It’s just all fun and games–no responsibilities, and no nasty surprises. In addition, the white female tourists are firmly in the power seat here, and they are all divorced from the realities of Haiti–the ugliness, the corruption, and the grinding poverty. It never seems to occur to these women that the Haitian men pay them attention simply because they need to eat, and neither do any of the women question how the men survive when the summer’s over, and the tourists go home.
The plot plays with the idea of exploitation. On one level, there’s the issue of the white women tourists and their relationships with the native men, but on another level, these relationships are symptoms of the exploitive colonialism of Haiti. Tourists are on holiday to have a good time, and being face-to-face with starving people isn’t something tourists want to see. There are those who argue that tourism is a good thing for the economy of any nation, but it’s impossible to see that in Heading South. While the natives are turned into seasonal gigolos, the tourists are completely divorced from the morality of their situation, and ultimately the tourists are just passing through while the Haitians are locked into the turmoil of a disastrous social and political climate. Heading South is a morally complex film, and its depth resonates long after the closing credits. In French and English with subtitles.