If I were Stella, I would totally get my groove back by going to Jamaica, picking up a male prostitute, fooling myself into thinking he was in love with me and then taking him back to the United States, where I'd find out he was actually gay. Luckily, I'm not Stella, so I've never made that mistake.
The women in Heading South are also not Stella. When they date male prostitutes, they at least know that they're dating male prostitutes. The problem for them is that they love the prostitutes anyway.
The even bigger problem is that Brenda (Karen Young) and Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) love the same prostitute, the supernaturally beautiful Legba (Ménothy Cesar). Legba is so pretty that not only do all the retirement-age women from America love him; so do all the young women of Haiti.
Which is where Heading South is set. Director Laurent Cantet isn't making a chick flick about the reacquisition of one's dispossessed groove without regard to the political ramifications of groove appropriation. He knows that when you take groove, someone must give groove, and that the loss of groove is often accompanied by humiliation, poverty, political repression and bloodshed.
Thus, Heading South is set in a time when Haiti was still under the thumb of the morally retarded "Baby Doc" Duvalier. But as Duvalier's regime began to crumble, the gross economic injustice that allowed wealthy whites to come and suck the life out of Haiti's poor was on the verge of exploding in the kind of violence that late colonialists find so exciting and tawdry.
What's nice about Cantet's film is that he doesn't judge the women; rather, he empathizes deeply with their need for love. In spite of the fact that they're part of the system of oppression in Haiti, their subjective lives are not that of oppressors, but of people who have been oppressed by love and desire and the sexual status of older women.
Cantet gives each of the women time to speak directly into the camera about what brought them south in search of love-for-hire. For Brenda, it was the end of a loveless marriage, and the fact that the only time she'd felt any sort of fulfillment was on a previous trip to the island when she fell into a relationship with an underage Haitian.
While Brenda is all maudlin romantic yearning, Ellen (played by Charlotte Rampling, who's superb, as always) is far more complex. A professor of literature at Wellesley, she's full of hate for her students, her fellow elderly pleasure seekers and herself. But she has a deep wisdom about the desires that motivate the female sex tourists, and she can express sympathy while still being cynical.
When Brenda comes to the resort where Ellen has established herself as top-dog sex tourist, and then falls in love with Ellen's favorite boy, Legba, the tension between them simmers with the kind of quiet hatred that separates the exuberant rivalries of the young from the self-conscious conflicts of the old and wise.
And while the women think of themselves as the center of the world, Legba is involved in a conflict that has no relation to his life among the whites. When his troubles occasionally spill into his resort life, the women assume that they have something to do with his problems. Their inability to see beyond their bungalows is sad and painful and extremely well-handled.
Heading South sets itself up with a tremendously powerful opening: A middle-aged Haitian woman approaches a hotel concierge (played with quiet intensity by Lys Ambroise, in what is apparently his first role) and asks him to adopt her daughter. The woman explains that she is poor, and the daughter is beautiful, so unless someone steps in to help, it's only a matter of time until she is taken and forced into prostitution. The man refuses to help, and the woman drifts away, not to be seen again.
But the film returns to the hotel concierge at the end, and as a black man serving these whites who come to use the youths of his country, he's the only one who understands all sides of the conflict.
The emotions are put forward with a combination of force, subtlety and respect that's unusual, and the political ramifications of sex tourism are shown in a way that the similarly themed How Stella Got Her Groove Back completely misses. However, Heading South is not without flaws.
The cinematography is dull, shot in TV-style even lighting, with the figures usually set in the center of the frame with no great thought to interesting compositions. Further, the story lags in the middle, getting bogged down in Brenda's sorrow when the interesting element is Legba's problems.
Nonetheless, the strong finish and opening, and the overall political and personal sensitivity of the film, make it a reasonably potent experience. Its capacity for intelligence and subtlety are characteristic of the recent wave of French films, and it does something that most American films would be shy about doing: It explains why some people might actually hate our freedoms, especially if those freedoms involve coming to their country and economically and sexually exploiting their youths.