In his 2001 film Time Out, writer-director Laurent Cantet made one man's alienation from the working world so palpable that when the character destroyed his life by compulsively driving around the French countryside, the choice seemed not just viable, but preferable. With Heading South, Cantet tries to stir up the same kind of empathy for three middle-aged women on vacation in Haiti at the end of the '70s, but it isn't apparent that even he has any feeling for them. Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, and Louise Portal play the women, all in Haiti to take advantage of an economic system that allows them to be waited on hand and foot—and other, more erogenous body parts—by toned, half-naked, desperately poor native teenage boys. But though the women talk a lot about the soul-changing effects of great sex, Cantet largely steers clear of cinematic sensuality, making his heroines' satisfaction—and the way it exploits the poor—primarily theoretical.
When Heading South played the festival circuit last year, it took a drubbing from critics and Cantet fans, for obvious reasons. As ringleader Rampling engages in a passive-aggressive competition with Young for the attentions of rapidly maturing urchin Ménothy Cesar, the story devolves into a snippy melodrama, with an uncomfortably thick streak of third-world voyeurism. And when the narrative breaks periodically so the ladies can address the camera, their "revealing" monologues mainly just tell us that they're exactly as shallow as they seem.
That said, a director as talented and thoughtful as Cantet is incapable of making a movie that's a complete bust. Heading South's gender politics keep the movie from being too simple, since these women's self-indulgence can be read as a kind of unfettered (and even laudable) feminism, instead of just unintentional racism. And though Cantet doesn't convey their emotions with much nuance, he wants the audience to see how easy it is to get carried away by the fantasy of being rich and desirable, and unsure of where the line should be between "living in the moment" and being a thoughtless guest. Heading South leaves Haiti's looming coups and AIDS epidemics as ghosts of the future, haunting the final days of a colonial golden age. But in Young's journey from self-doubt to self-confidence, Cantet makes a larger point about how stronger cultures take what they want from the weaker, leaving them devastated. Don't think it's a coincidence that Young is the movie's quintessential American.