Friday, July 07, 2006

Vers le sud (Heading South) - Movie Review

Vers le sud 2005

God, sometimes we simply adore the French! Not just for their food and art – but for their unabashed love of actresses of “un certain age”. Case in point – Charlotte Rampling whose career began with a brief cameo over forty years ago in one of the seminal films of the 1960s – “The Knack . . . and How to Get It”. This former model, turned starlet shimmered her way through some very notable films in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, establishing herself as a cult idol, if not an "A-list actress".

Directors as talented and varied as Richard Lester, John Boorman, Luchino Visconti, Patrice Chéreau, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Claude Lelouch, Alan Parker and Michael Cacoyannis all fell under her spell. Well, while her youth may have featured her stunning beauty – it would take time and some adoring young directors to fully utilize her powerful acting talents to their best advantage. Now, at the wizened age of sixty, Ms. Rampling has been giving knockout performances for such interesting filmmakers as François Ozon, Dominik Moll and now with “Vers le Sud”, the talented Laurent Cantet.
Director Laurent Cantet is making quite the name for himself in his relatively short career, beginning with his feature film debut “Les Sanguinaires” and moving up the chain with his award winning “Ressources Humaines” and “L’Emploi du Temps” – he has developed a reputation of combining character dynamics with the socio-political. He is definitely one to keep an eye on, and we expect nothing but good things from Laurent. Either that, or he’ll crash and burn like the once promising Jean-Jacques Beineix. (Ooof. We’re still not over that cinematic suicide!)

With “Vers le Sud”, Cantet uses the divine Ms. Rampling to wonderful effect as a mature New England maîtresse on holiday in Haiti during the 1970s. Those of you familiar with history will no doubt realize the political hotbed in this Caribbean paradise at that time would normally dissuade any vacationers. Not our gals. For not only is Ms. Rampling here to sample the local fruits and sites – a fortysomething American divorcee arrives to relive one extraordinarily potent experience she had a few years prior. Along for the ride are several other single women, sans escorts, sans inhibitions and clearly sans their once youthful face and figures.

Now what could possibly drive a bunch of single, slightly over the hill ladies to venture to an island rife with political upheaval? Simple. Young, muscled, well hung local boys. And we do mean boys. For you see, it turns out this particular island resort paradise is famous for the local lads who hang out all day along the beach, addle up to the tourists, offer to help apply their suntan lotion and take a look under the hood while they’re at it. And what’s wrong with a little “The Golden Girls” meets “Jungle Fever”, we ask you?

Not a damn thing. For this film works on many levels. First and foremost with the casting of the three leads. Our respect for Ms. Rampling should be evident, but we were surprised to see Karen Young, (Who is more famous stateside as “The SopranosFBI Agent Robyn Sanseverino.) as the catalyst for the drama. For it seems that Karen’s character, Brenda has returned to Haiti to find the very young man that changed her life. Only to discover this young man firmly under the well paid heel of Charlotte Rampling. And one look at Ménothy Cesar and his deliciously beguiling build and smile as the object of their mutual affection, Legba – and you will understand.

Before you can scream, “Catfight!”, Charlotte Ramping as Ellen helps to define the tone and storyline for the film. There is no need to fight over Legba’s amazing talents, for in Haiti, in this resort in particular – the local fruits are to be shared and not hoarded. What ensues is not a reverse “Jules et Jim” scenario, but rather a look in to the lives of several lonely ladies who escape their suffocating lives back home by venturing to a land where Western morals and morays are regarded as puritanical and oppressive. For the young men of Haiti are more than happy to share their favors in exchange for adulation, respect and a little hard cash in their empty pockets.

While we are following the lives of Ellen, Brenda and their galpals as they frolic in the sand, rejoice in their companions and revel in their bounty – we are thoroughly entertained. When the storyline begins to follow Legba into his own community, a community filled with imbalance and fear, we begin to understand the director’s true métier. Laurent Cantet is too smart to simply reinterpret “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”. He understands that there is a price to be exacted from all concerned.

The women may be enjoying their place in the sun, but their notions of pleasure and romance will always rely on the power of money. There may be infatuation and perhaps even a touch of emotion, but these young men are not real lovers – they are playthings. And in a society crumbling around them, they are easy prey to greed and envy. When disaster strikes and we sense this coming from the very opening scene – it is still shocking, but altogether understandable. There was simply no way this island paradise would last.

What makes this film work is the conviction with which the lead actors play out their roles. Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young and Ménothy Cesar are all cast extremely well. Charlotte Rampling is a joy to watch as the manipulative Ellen. Seemingly at peace with her role as the den mother, and constantly on vigil towards any interlopers – her moment of self-realization comes at the cusp of tragedy. Whether she is able to overcome this unexpected obstacle we leave to you to discover. As the hesitantly longing Brenda, Karen Young was a very pleasant surprise. Watch the skillful way she learns to discover her own voice, at a painful cost to all around her. Their skill and the director’s eye for detail go a long way in selling this tale of sin in the sun. Bless you all!

Directed by Laurent Cantet
Written by Robin Campillo & Laurent Cantet
Based on the stories of Dany Laferrière

Charlotte Rampling as Ellen
Karen Young as Brenda
Louise Portal as Sue
Ménothy Cesar as Legba
Lys Amrboise as Albert
Jackenson Pierry Olmo Diaz as Eddy
Wilfried Paul as Neptune
Anotte Saint Ford as La fille de la limousine
Marie-Laurence Hérard as La dame de l’aéroport

Film Editing by Robin Campillo
Cinematography by Pierre Milon
Production Design by Franckie Diago
Costume Design by Denis Sperdouklis


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