At its surface, "Heading South" seems like something of a cynical "Shirley Valentine" or a politicized "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Yet it is even darker, angrily biting at the idea of sex tourism, specifically that involving wealthy middle-aged white women who would venture to Haiti in the 1970s to soak up the sun and enjoy the local gigolos, many of them teenagers, while gleefully ignoring the horrors of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's dictatorship.
The film grabs us early with a striking opener, in which a troubled woman begs a chauffeur to take her teenage daughter with him; the woman, whose husband was disappeared by Duvalier's men, does not mind dying at the hands of the current regime, but she fears what they would do to her daughter. With this one scene, we quickly understand the landscape.
And then it all fizzles away all too quickly, as we meet our wealthy middle-aged white women. Brenda (Karen Young) is an American who visited Haiti years ago and experienced her first orgasm at the hands of a beachcomber named Legba (Ménthony Cesar). She has left her husband and returned to the island looking for more from the young man. There, she meets Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), who has spent years at the resort enjoying the attention she receives from Legba, and the plump Sue (Louise Portal), a French Canadian desperate for the sexual freedom the resort provides.
Based on a series of short stories by Dany Laferriere and scripted by Robin Campillo ("They Came Back") and director Laurent Cantet ("Time Out"), "Heading South" makes its point all too quickly. Yes, the women are spoiled and cruel in their intentional obliviousness toward the poverty and corruption that surrounds them. Yes, they only perpetuate the troubles of the nation. And so on. But there is surprisingly little drama to be found in all of this - the struggle between Brenda and Ellen for the affections of the same man is rather drab and trivial, and Ellen's eventual awakening to the evils around her is not nearly as overwhelming as it should be.
Rampling provides another of her dependable performances, giving her character a depth otherwise missing from the story. But the rest of the cast (most notably Young) is far too weak, unable to fully sell the politics of the script. Worse, Cantet's biggest gimmick, in which the characters deliver monologues to the camera, is clumsy and all too out of place with the rest of the story. There's ultimately little weight to this tale of corruption, destitution, exploitation, and self-involvement, and while an important message is at the movie's core, Cantet just can't find a way to make us care.
"Heading South" is currently being released exclusively through "Red Envelope Entertainment," the new name for Netflix's distribution arm (formerly known as "Netflix First"). It is currently unavailable for rental or purchase anywhere other than through the online rental company, although a release date of February 6, 2007, has been set for the film to be made available for purchase elsewhere.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer does little to improve on the film's soft and grainy look. The soundtrack, which mixes English and French, is available in 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo, both sounding just fine for a talk-heavy picture. The English subtitles that pop up over the French dialogue are not removable.
Die-hard Rampling fans with some time to kill might want to give this one a quick spin to watch her salvage an otherwise bland film, while everyone else will do fine to just Skip It.