Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Heading South

This new film by French director Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out) is an interesting exploration of the sexual tourism of white mature women of means who travel to some banana republic, Haiti in this case, to get laid with strapping, dirt poor young black studs. I saw this happen on a trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago. The movie captures the akwardness of these mutually "beneficial" arrangements between the tourists and the touristed. Sexual predatory tourism by males is very common in any underdeveloped country with a beach, yet sexual tourism by women is a slightly different matter. It is certainly less common, though it happens in places like Jamaica, Cuba, the D.R, and probably other Third World "paradises".
The arrangement goes something like this: I pay for your food and drinks and perhaps clothes and entertainment and maybe even buy something for your family, and you sleep with me and keep me company and romance me. I live a fabulous fantasy of sexual freedom and pleasure in an edenic context, far from my job, my relatives and my real life, and you give me your body in exchange for money, in front of your peers, some of who hold decent, hard jobs that don't pay for a living and certainly aren't much fun. What happens in the bedroom is between you and me. Perhaps there I let you have the upper hand. But on the light of day, I boss you around, boytoy, and your studly manhood is somehow compromised.
What is interesting about Heading South is that it seems to bite much more than it can chew. It sheds light on the politics between the sexes, on racism, on the role of mature women in affluent societies, on how life is cheap in poor, corrupt places, and it is also about the personae people shed when in a different place. Laurent Cantet's movies are always about the emotional ramifications of the political and economic imbalances between people, and although it isn't hard to guess which side he is on, he is never preachy. He usually achieves an intelligent, graceful balance of the personal and the deeply political, because the personal stories he tells are strong, and his characters interesting.
Heading South is a quirky movie. At moments it seems a tad melodramatic, with plot twists more suitable for a telenovela. At moments, the main characters talk directly to camera, as if they were being interviewed for a documentary. Cantet got incredible performances from both Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young. La Rampling is an expert on women who piss icewater. Here she plays a woman obsessed with her own power, a major bitch on wheels. It is a credit to her chops that the nastier she gets, the more sympathetic, or rather pathetic, she becomes. Her speech to camera gave me goosebumps. Karen Young is extraordinarily resourceful and surprising as an American woman from Savannah who seems like an innocent abroad and then turns out to be something quite different. Heading South is a disturbing, thought-provoking film about a subject that people would rather not think about: who wants to dwell on poverty and injustice when sipping their pina colada?

I was on vacation at a certain island with a leftist totalitarian regime where this tit for tat between tourists and natives was par for the course. I went with a female friend and the two of us couldn't put one foot in front of the other without a male native approaching us and offering to take us eating, dancing, drinking, etc. This, in translation meant: I take you to the restaurant and you are The Bank of England, open 24/7.
We befriended some very charming guys but they expected, assumed and took it for granted that we were going to pay for their every beer, and more. Their brazeness frankly pissed me off, because I was not looking for romance nor to be their cash cow. After having every seemingly spontaneous encounter end in some kind of negotiation, we were wary of all of them. One bewildering exception was Denis, a handsome black guy we met at a bar on New Year's Eve. We invited him to beers, but he never accepted meals, and he always stopped at one or two drinks. Didn't overdo it. We ran into him downtown, hung out with him a couple of times, had a lovely, innocent, friendly time and he never seemed to ask for anything or expect anything other than hanging out with people who had the liberty to leave their country when they very well pleased. He was very elegant and very dignified. One night we were walking on the street and some guy told him he was our bitch, sort of. He got extremely upset and in his very controlled way, told the guy to shut his yap. He seemed truly offended. In the end, we did pay for his drinks because that's what you do for a friend who can't. And to this day I wonder if that was all he wanted.

No comments:

Post a Comment