Heading Southrecommended viewing

It’s all business, baby
Laurent Cantet
Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Louise Portal, Ménothy Cesar, Lys Ambroise
The Setup: 
Three middle-aged women engage in sex tourism in Haiti during the 70s.

Sex tourism: two words guaranteed to pique my interest. I had heard a lot of great things about this movie and meant to get to it while it was out, but ended up missing it. But once I watched Les Revenants and saw that this was written by the writer / director of that film, this one shot to the top of my list. I am also interested in seeing the other films by this director, the well-regarded Time Out and Human Resources.

We begin here with a man at the airport waiting to pick up a tourist. There he is approached by a woman who talks about how beautiful and helpful her daughter is. She wants to give the daughter to him. He says “I don’t know what you mean,” and she gives him this look like: “YOU know what I mean.” She says that her husband was arrested and taken out of his office one day with no explanation, and she worries about her daughter and what will happen to her. The guy, Albert, says he can’t help her, and she wishes him well, and tells him to be careful: “It’s hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone is wearing a mask.”

This scene establishes the scene in Haiti during the reign of dictator Baby Doc during the 70s, in which the general populous lived in extreme poverty and under the tyranny of anyone with the slightest bit of power. Albert picks up the woman from the airport, Brenda, a blonde American in what looks like her early 50s, and takes her to his resort. I have to say I was really enjoying my surround sound when Brenda arrives at the resort and we hear the whooshing wind and the sound of the sea.

Brenda goes straight out onto the beach where she locates Legba, a Haitian she had an affair with on a visit three years previous, when he was 15. Legba remembers and greets her, but it is the first of many rude awakenings for her when a woman calls him from across the beach, and he just walks away from Brenda to join her. This is Charlotte Rampling as Ellen, a professor from Boston who has visited this same resort for the past six years, and spends six months out of the year there. Ellen has a long scene in which she expresses her disgust for fat women, using a third woman, Sue, as an example. When we see Sue she is a few pounds overweight, but not fat by any means.

Now let’s divert for a moment. When I was in Marrakesh, Morocco, there’s this huge square where the tourists gather in the evenings, the restaurants all set up booths, musicians are out playing for tips, and there are a lot of male hustlers. They come in all varieties, many of them quite hot and quite eager, but it gives one a funny feeling, because you know that they are only doing it because they’re very poor and this is one way to make money. So if you do it [and I did not do it, btw] you have to wonder: Is this exploitation? Are you taking advantage of them? Are you making life worse for them? Do they hate you? What do they think?

This whole movie is suffused with all of those issues, handled in different, but very subtle and penetrating ways. We have the first of four chapter titles and character-setting monologues by the four major characters—pointedly excluding Legba. Brenda tells how when she was on the island earlier she was hanging out with the then-15 Legba, and she “adopted” him. One day they were on a secluded beach and she mad a move for him and they had sex: “It was so violent. I never stopped screaming. It was my first orgasm. I was 45.” So clearly Brenda has a dear place in her heart for Legba, and she is quite disconcerted to see him at the beck and call of the icily ironic Ellen. To spite her, she goes and dances with a quite young boy who is obviously looking toward a future as a hustler, until Legba can’t stand it and breaks it up. Although nothing is ever said, we get the impression that he doesn’t want to see this young boy pursue the same path he did.

The next character we get a monologue from is Charlotte Rampling’s Ellen. She says there is NOTHING for women over 40 in Boston, and that she always thought when she got to a certain age she would pay for sex and not feel bad about it. She speculates that men toy with women’s feeling for idle fun. It’s not too long before we have a monologue from Albert, an older black worker at the resort, the one who picked up Brenda at the beginning. He considers Americans the most destructive of the island’s visitors: “Americans invade with something more destructive than cannons—dollars.” Some more stuff, then a monologue from Sue, who says that Ellen is such an establishment at the resort that “she’s like the sun we all revolve around.”

But matters are deteriorating between Ellen and Brenda. Ellen is getting jealous of Brenda and the attention Legba is giving her, which she expresses by being icily superior, bossy and ironic, constantly implying that Brenda is silly and immature. For her part, Brenda starts making pissy comments about how Ellen bosses everyone around and sets the rules. Soon after Ellen and Legba have a scene in which they are swimming together [an image from this sequence became the poster] and he suddenly tells her that when her hair is wet she is not pretty. She looks old.

As I said, we never get a monologue from Legba, which is obviously purposeful, but a very few scenes of his personal life succeed very well in hinting at what he’s dealing with. First a car pulls over and an all-dolled-up Haitian woman beckons him in. I didn’t catch who she was, but I think she used to be a girlfriend of Legba’s. She says some guy in the regime wanted her, and so he could just take her and make her his wife. She says he kills everyone in his path, so all the gifts he gives her are like a machete to the neck. She tells the driver to start protecting Legba as well as her from then on, unaware that she is in fact dooming Legba to death as a man who may or may not have an interest in the wife of a political higher-up. In a separate scene, we see some Hatiain girls Legba is interested in, and for us at least, any illusion that he might be genuinely interested in his American hosts is obliterated.

Ellen and Brenda engage in a HIGHLY-REFINED bitch-off at the restaurant before Brenda goes and makes a fool out of herself on the dance floor, trying to look like she’s possessed by the drums and it’s makin’ her all sensual—she is trying her best to be a native. This happens a fair amount in Central Park during the summer, when a bunch of black guys gather and form a drumming circle. There is inevitably at least one white woman, usually blonde, eager to show the crowd how much soul she’s got—even though she’s white!—who steps into the circle and starts making her best attempt to get jiggy wit it. It’s embarrassing, and in the movie Legba is horribly embarrassed by Brenda [there are several included shots of other Haitians looking at her and laughing], so much so that he goes over and asks the band to change the music.

Well, now the shit it gonna hit the fan, so you’d better re-evaluate if you really want to know the ending. Legba is suddenly attacked by a gunman while he and Brenda are in town. Brenda cries to Sue at dinner “I really thought he was beginning to love me. He looked at me in a way he never had before.” Legba returns, and Brenda is with him, when Ellen, who has also heard of the attack, insists on speaking to him. She tells him he is to pack up and come back with her to Boston, she will support him and he’ll be safe. It’s a little painfully obvious that she’s using his situation as an excuse to lay claim to him. She really throws herself on him. He responds with an icy “You’re not my mother.” He then goes to visit his actual mother, who begs him to come back and live with her and leave his life of slow corruption—but falls notably silent once he offers some of his money to her.

Okay, I won’t tell you the ending, but suffice to say it continues for the devastating, and if you are amused by very high-level bitch-fights and the sight of refined women wandering unmoored and crazy, that campy amusement is also to be had. The film ends with one character saying of the islands “I want visit all the islands… Trinidad, Bahamas, [many more]… So many names. I want to know them all.” What she’s saying, even more shocking in the context of the movie, is that despite everything that’s happened, she wants to continue going around, picking up different native men, using them, perhaps destroying them, and moving on.

Charlotte was amazing. She should at least get nominated for this, and probably win, but she won’t because the movie was small and is forgotten by now, awards time. But it also must be noted that this role plays to what she does best, which is be arch and icy and ironic and superior and removed. This role really was meant for her to play; she’s perfect. Karen Young [notably of Jaws: The Revenge!] as Brenda is also very good, but there are a few moments where she is obviously ‘acting’ and it just isn’t being sold as well as it could be. The rest of the actors are good but don’t particularly stand out.

The real star of this movie is the writing. It is brilliantly written to bring to light all of the many ethical, psychological and political issues brought up by this story, without ever hitting any of them with a hammer. A few well-placed and evocative scenes give a crucial hint of the political and social situation, but don’t make you feel like you’re being set up or strung along. The women’s psychology is also beautifully done—in one way, this could be considered a very misogynist story, as essentially these women need men, are incapable of keeping their feelings out of their business, and eventually self-destruct and turn on each other, but the depth that each actress brings to her role, as well as the psychological acuity with which it’s all captured elevate it out of that realm.

So all in all, one of the better movies I’ve watched this year, electrifying in its combustible mix of politics, lust and psychology as apparently only the French can do it. Go the French!

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s a wonderful and very edgy drama.

LES REVENANTS was written by the writer / director of this, and is a sober examination of what might happen if the dead just got up and rejoined society.