"I'm glad I have long vacations," says Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a Wellesley College French professor summering in a luxurious resort in 1970s Haiti. She enjoys being liberated from her students, who are either weeping in hallways over a boyfriend or "trying to catch a husband between their thighs." Her frank, straight-into-the-camera monologue is one of several in Laurent Cantet's "Heading South" that allow the characters to share their pasts, preoccupations and sexual histories. Ellen uses her time away from work to lounge at a hotel where polite, handsome Haitian men cater to her every need, from the seaside cabana to the restaurant to the bedroom.
Ellen is the alpha female of a group of genteel sex tourists, well-off middle-aged women who visit pre-AIDS Port-au-Prince to exercise the sort of no-strings erotic consumerism usually reserved for sugar daddies. It is, she declares, a "paradise" of sun, sand and sensuality, at least for the pampered visitors. The natives, like the hotel's dignified manager Albert (Lys Ambroise), privately consider the predatory whites "lower than monkeys."
The coolly manipulative Ellen has laid claim to the most desirable of the inn's young men, Legba (Menothy Cesar), whose athletic good looks are surpassed only by his silver-tongued gift for flattery and flirtation. Savannah divorcee Brenda (Karen Young), who experienced a life-changing day of passion with Legba on a vacation three years earlier, arrives intent on reliving the experience. They begin a rivalry for his attention, Ellen beckoning him with clever emotional gamesmanship and Brenda, half-convinced that she loves the handsome beach boy, offering expensive gifts and invitations to dine. As they duel for possession of the gigolo, agents of the secret police circle Legba for shadowy misdeeds.
The cast is excellent. The regal Rampling has never been finer, and Cesar makes his character surprisingly proud and sympathetic. Cantet stresses the story's deeper meanings clearly without turning it into a soapbox sermon. His sensual drama is a veiled examination of Third World colonialism, with sex as the appetizer. While Ellen and Brenda play tug-of-war over their toy, Legba is in a real life-and-death struggle the tourists scarcely observe. The last act is a study in simmering suspense, and when events take a brutal turn the division between the characters who suffer and those who skip away scot-free is as plain as black and white.