It's remarkable how an initially inflammatory premise can quickly seem perfectly normal. Thus, Heading South, a film about rich white women of a certain age who vacation in Haiti so they can have hot sex with young local studs, is by the end a perfectly solid and sober drama about aging, loneliness, poverty and power.
This is a film that easily could have gone off the Cinemax deep end, with horny white women finding sexual rapture in the tropics, but thanks to the restraint and subtlety of the French director Laurent Cantet, Heading South becomes a fairly even-handed treatment of a subject that, if not sexually exploitive, might become the occasion for shrill, moralistic finger-pointing.
The film is set in the 1970s, which places it in the swinging, pre-AIDS era, and also in the time of Baby Doc Duvalier, whose grip on power depended on the ability of his thugs--the tontons macoutes--to terrorize the Haitian population. The narrative of Heading South thus follows something like a Graham Greene course, with rich white visitors to a tropical paradise discovering that their privilege comes courtesy of a brutal political reality. The specifics are elided, however, as the film is composed of a series of character sketches drawn from a novel and several short stories by Dany Laferrière that inspired this enterprise.
The chilling opening scene--a prologue, really--is a short film of its own. A middle-aged black man waiting for an arriving white woman at the Port au Prince airport is approached by a haunted old woman who explains that ever since her law-abiding, provident husband ran afoul of some political criminals, she has been penniless. Therefore, she wants to give her beautiful (and poor, thus doomed) daughter to the man, who would then employ her in the safety of his resort. It's a creepy scene, and as Brenda, a shy, delicate blonde from Savannah, Ga., arrives, we already know she is a compromised woman.
Brenda (marvelously played by Karen Young, best known perhaps as F.B.I. agent Robyn Sanseverino on The Sopranos) joins other middle-aged women at the resort, all of whom are there to sun themselves and indulge in the attentions of the handsome but penniless men who are allowed to hang around the private beach. The chief tourist is Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a Wellesley French professor whose bitter view of the island's romances is a cover for her own terror at losing her youth and beauty.
Ellen looks upon Brenda with contempt, for the younger interloper is infected with a dangerous sentimentality: Brenda is actually in love with the most desired man on the beach, a young stud named Legba (Ménothy Cesar, a Haitian non-professional cast after a lengthy search). In the best of the film's several monologues that break from normal cinematic practice, Brenda describes herself as a sexually underdeveloped woman whose awakening came quite unexpectedly several years before with this young man.
While sex tourism is a practice that deserves scorn, what makes Heading South particularly perceptive is its recognition that each tourist has a personal story, as does each native. And, thankfully, Cantet doesn't tell this story only from the women's point of view. We learn more about the man who manages the resort, and also about the private life of Legba, the real relationships that he maintains away from the resort. Although Legba is indeed being exploited, it's an exchange that also benefits him, as we come to understand the complications of his own situation. Still, even if both parties consent to the arrangement, we learn the inevitable bitter truth: Some people are freer than others.
Heading South opens Friday in select theaters.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is the classic humble niche picture that can be surprisingly successful when accompanied by smart marketing. Directed by the unheralded Dan Ireland (best known, perhaps, for an early Renée Zellweger film called The Whole Wide World) and adapted from a work by the long-dead British novelist named Elizabeth (not-that-one) Taylor, this tea-and-crumpets affair stars the septuagenarian Joan Plowright in the title role.
When I finally caught up with Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont at its sole Triangle venue, the Galaxy in Cary, it was clear that the film--by now in its second week of release--had succeeded in locating its audience of older women. While the dramatic events of the film lack subtlety, and some of the supporting players offer egregiously broad performances, this is a film that doesn't flinch from the humiliations of aging. The butter on this biscuit can be bitter.
Mrs. Palfrey is a perfectly ordinary, small-town widow who decides to move to London and take a room at the Claremont Hotel. The Claremont specializes in a senior clientele, and the dining room is where they each eat alone, while eyeing each other and exchanging trivialities. Although they tell each other that no one is allowed to die at the Claremont, they are all aware, in fact, that they have come to this hotel to live out their lives with some degree of dignity, independence and urbanity.
The residents of the hotel are the usual varied types--the gossip, the showgirl, the intellectual and so on--but one thing they share is that widespread malady of old age: loneliness. The fondest wish for all of them, as is the case with Mrs. Palfrey, is to have visitors, preferably a handsome grandson or two. Although Mrs. Palfrey happens to have one in London, he neglects to call upon her. Instead, the tale of Mrs. Palfrey is one in which she finds a surrogate grandson, a struggling writer named Ludovic Meyer, who is played by the impossibly gorgeous Rupert Friend, no doubt on his way to bigger things, having already been seen to good effect as the feckless cad Wickham in Pride & Prejudice.
Mrs. Palfrey and her new friend meet cute one afternoon when she is tripped up by another of old age's indignities and takes a nasty spill on the sidewalk. Fortunately, her fall catches the attention of Ludovic, who brings her inside to serve her tea and tend to her skinned knee. The latter task leads to a series of shots that can only be termed "old lady porn," as the young man gently caresses Mrs. Palfrey's injured knee and asks if he should blow on it.
A friendship ensues, one that begins with Ludovic paying a call to the Claremont and pretending to be Mrs. Palfrey's actual grandson Desmond for the benefit of her fellow residents. But director Ireland wisely soft-pedals this stock plot device in favor of a tender and surprisingly clear-eyed meditation on aging, mourning and nostalgia. This is a film that finds a good bit of inspiration in one of the greatest movies ever, David Lean's Brief Encounter, which itself is about the unfulfilled desires of a repressed suburban housewife.
Despite a certain amount of obviousness in the acting and design elements, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is a fearless look at a part of life few of us want to contemplate, the period in which we realize that our lives have been lived, and there is no going back except to find peace in our memories. There is a distinctly literary tone to the film that elevates it above the commonplace sentimentality one would normally expect to find in this material. Mrs. Palfrey's disillusionment with her grandson (and his mother) never really abates. Instead, her decision to live at the Claremont and enter into a friendship with a surrogate grandson more to her taste is a final cry of independence for a woman who has spent her life as a good wife and mother and isn't going to take it anymore.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont ends Thursday at Galaxy Cinema.