Coming for colonialism


Michael Caylo-Baradi analyses how Heading South by French director Laurent Cantet explores through sex tourism the complex colonial legacies that coexist in modern Haiti


Heading South (Vers le sud)
Laurent Cantet
2005, Haut et Court/Sévile/France 3/Studio Canal
108 minutes, French and English

LATAMROB rating: ****

LAURENT CANTET’S Heading South (Vers le Sud) is a film about sex tourism, with the sex tourists in this case citizens from the north, specifically Canada and the US. The setting is Haiti under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in the late 1970s.

The sex-tourists are not our usual suspects but white women, over 40 and the objects of their desire are young men from Port-au-Prince.

At the heart of the story is a love-triangle between two of the women tourists and a young man; the “bitch[es] in heat” are Ellen, played by Charlotte Rampling, and Brenda, played by Karen Young. The young man these women are crazy about is played by non-professional actor, Mènothy Cesar as Legba.

To cushion the cat-fights between Ellen and Brenda, Cantet uses the French-Canadian Sue, played by Louise Portal, as occasional referee. Sue seems to know when to move out of the way, when the cat-claws are out, and since Sue has her own young man, Neptune, she safely admires Legba from a distance.

Ellen and Brenda’s rivalry starts to evolve upon the latter’s arrival from Altanta, Georgia, in Petit Anse Resort. At 48, Karen looks slim, somewhat attractive for her age, and ready for a good time; but she had met Legba three years before, when he was 15. It was then that Legba gave Brenda her first orgasm, at the age of 45. Legba, therefore, defines a milestone in Karen’s life as a woman – he is Brenda’s orgasm. Legba bookmarks Brenda’s life, before and after her first orgasm experience.

But now Legba is 18 and the most desired escort among the women tourists. Outspoken and aggressive, Ellen does not hesitate to let Brenda know Legba’s status in the resort: that he is meant to be shared. But the memory of Brenda’s first sexual encounter with Legba heightens her advances towards him. When Ellen realises that Legba responds to these advances, Ellen notices, and foresees complications, because she understands her desire for Legba has found a rival in Brenda.

The competing desire for Legba among these two women is our window into the strength of their characters. Brutal, this clash propels the story; it is the Caribbean “hurricane” or calamity that spins Legba’s fate out of control, even though he projects calm demeanor to save his masculinity from being castrated by hysteria.

Besides being a resort escort, Legba has another life outside the hotel complex. The film reveals that he has relations with other women in Port-au-Prince, especially those from rich families. But his life outside clashes with his life inside the resort. On the day Legba takes Brenda around Port-au-Prince, a four-door Mercedes Benz tries to run him over and then its driver chases him with a gun. Later, when the resort and its patrons have gone to sleep, a Benz dumps two naked, dead bodies in its grounds: one of which is Legba’s. Ellen and Brenda are shocked and confused, that they are not in paradise after all.

After talking to local police about apprehending Legba’s assassins, Ellen talks to the resort’s manager, Albert. A son of resistance fighters, Albert has inherited his parents’ brutal and unapologetic views of white people and when he listens to Ellen, he merely listens as though anything he would say to comfort her is useless because words are inadequate to explain the Haiti that exists beyond the borders of the resort.

Soon, Albert takes Ellen to the airport for her flight back to North America, and home, and she can, at least, anticipate consequences when things happen. But for Karen, the resort is only the first leg of her journey into the Caribbean; the names of the places she wants to visit fascinate her: Cuba, Barbados, Martinique, Trinidad, Bahamas. She seems ready to put Legba behind, although he, no doubt, serves as a reference point for what she expects in Caribbean men, in her sex tours.

Layers of Poverty

Cantet’s realism, in this film, is convincing and can be nauseating; it feasts on the melodramas, pornographies, and dynamics of sex tourism to a point where the facade of tourism disappears and what we see is unapologetic desperation to satisfy basic human needs: food, sex, money, and love. Desire binds these elements together as Haiti: Haiti as state of distress, need, and eroticism. Here, the narrative interrogations of desire take place in familiar terrains that often highlight concerns in post-colonial and neo-colonial social-relations: poverty, labour, and race.

Our initial image of Haiti in the movie is the busy lobby of Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince. This airport officially opened for commercial use in 1965, through grant money from the US. Certainly, this grant money is not without strings attached: it is cousin to other monies deployed by the US elsewhere at this time. Vietnam, no doubt, is major recipient, because of an escalating war there.

Grant monies are part of the subtle, encroaching, and insatiable energies of empire to expand its influence in any dimension it desires. The distribution and apportionment of these grant monies satisfy empire’s need to have influence in a territory; empire’s hunger for space and influence in that space is intrinsic to its sense of identity. In many ways, this poverty can be highly abstract, in the context of the film; but it does seep through the identity of the women in the film. Through sex tourism, their presence is a form of grant money, the materialisation of desire: to colonise Haiti’s beaches and its young men.

In the early 1970s, one can argue, Haiti did not lack leadership. In fact, it may have had it in excess, albeit in a bloody form, during the Duvalier regime; this excess is, unfortunately, called dictatorship. During the elder Duvalier reign, Haiti’s international airport was named after him because he secured the grant money to build it: François Duvalier International Airport. Indeed, the nickname “Papa Doc” gives his name dual essence, that of father and healer. No doubt, to many, this nickname is highly ironic, since Papa Doc was known for his brutality; to others though, that nickname has significance, because of certain charms he employed during his reign. In his time, Papa Doc Duvalier developed a highly-personal form of dictatorship, the kind that attempts to unify a population trying to evolve out of generations of colonial administrations.

Papa Doc understood something about the power of communication, that by penetrating the language of his people, he could control their mind, desires, especially their myths; through this, he believed his power over Haiti was total, absolute. However, this absolutism was not unique; the political dictatorships that succeeded, replaced, and evolved out of colonial administrations, around the globe, are forms of panic and schizophrenia, a rush to draft national identity, to belong to a modern world order. And not surprisingly, it’s an order led by affluent nations that used to colonise and own many territories, in many time zones. Papa Doc’s dictatorship, therefore, can be viewed as food for Haiti’s impoverished national identity; but in many circles, this food is not relief, but poison.

When “Papa Doc” was succeeded by “Baby Doc”, Haiti under the son appeared to be ruled by the same person in the son’s name – baby as doctor, and, therefore, inexperienced. But perhaps that nickname was a misnomer: the younger Duvalier was not like his father. Papa Doc tried to forge national identity by considering the non-Western condition of Haitians. On the other hand, Baby Doc Duvalier’s omission of this aspect in his father’s leadership was viewed as elitist, especially when he only addressed Haitians in French; this omission would evolve into perceptions of disconnection and alienation between his government and the Haitian population.

In some ways, there are some parallels between Baby Doc Duvalier with one of the film’s characters, Legba; in fact, Legba can be viewed as a vague representation and spectre of the young Duvalier’s character. Even though the script informs us that Legba speaks Haiti’s native tongue, he speaks French as well; being bilingual, we can sense he undergoes fluid cultural transitions between his life in the resort and outside it. The character of this fluidity renders a complex, bi-cultural identity that may not always be an asset. Legba’s ease and facility in dealing with his white-women friends puts him on a pedestal. But his penetration into the hearts of two white women gives him an image of superiority, conqueror; however, it is an image that inspires envy and endangers his life.

But of course, the women tourists have a different image of Legba; Brenda’s love for him, for instance, has almost made her immune from having negative thoughts about him. After leaving the airport on her way to the resort, her van drives through Port-Au-Prince’s streets jammed with vehicles that look dilapidated, rusty, giving them a sense of lagging, impoverished modernity; this is pre-Aids era, a time before Haiti is considered the source of the disease. We can safely assume Brenda feels somewhat at home in the images of explicit poverty she sees, since three years before, one of this city’s young men has given her a monumental orgasm. Haiti is now part of who she is, indeed; the country has a place in her heart, because of Legba.

This landscape of poverty that Brenda drives through creates deep contrast to the specific place she will be living at: a tourist enclave, Petit Anse Resort – a place that is guarded and protected by the resort’s normalised amnesia about that country’s depressing, economic situation. The lifeblood of this oasis is the lure of foreign currency from rich countries, the dominant tools used in the exchange of capital and commodities. Tethered to these currencies are the citizens who make them circulate, often members of professional classes that help manage and maintain the plight of financial and cultural capital within the First-World. Tight management guards the flow of these currencies outside the realm of First-World national boundaries; and these flows can often be linked to trusted allies in non-First-World nations. These allies come in diverse forms of companies and organisations. The Petite Anse Resort can be viewed as one of those companies and organisations. The resort’s owners capitalise on the scenic beauty of a certain Haitian coast, replete with blue-green waters, white sand, and palm trees along a curvy, lyrical cove. The resort’s owners – whoever they are and whatever their racial affiliations are – commodify this natural beauty into tourist haven, in which only First World currencies are used to experience that paradise. Thus, First World citizens are the main guests of the resort, and, as expected, white.

But there is another commodity here, besides beautiful beaches, which enables the women to indulge in erotic affairs: the absence or poverty of legal boundaries that discourage paedophilia; this poverty of rules is embedded in the resort’s relaxing, cozy privacy, and is indelible to the idea of sex tourism itself.

But why would these women leave home to indulge in erotic desires? Certainly, to many, home is about being in familiar environment, a safe place that nourishes dynamics of routine and modes of civility. However, erotic desires crave the subversive; this is the energy that propels sex tourism: to leave home and feel the more expansive freedoms of sex, outside the context of home’s civilised environs and reminders. On the other hand, the idea of home can exist in various forms, nourished in diverse compartments and contexts of imagination. Thus, a concept of home can exist for modes of civility that qualify as calculated subversions. In the film, home is also home away from home, a space for erotic adventures. Here, the contexts and dynamics of adventure, danger, relaxation, uncertainty, and chaos accumulate stimulating scenarios, especially fantasies that anticipate erotic intimacies and confrontations. Haiti is that kind of erotic space Ellen, Brenda, Sue, and their friends need. In this regard, these women are, I would argue, suffering from a poverty of space in the northern countries they are from; they need a space where they can liberate their erotic desires.

Furthermore, this kind of poverty these women have is something new, because the participants of sex tourism has always been men. But according to Michel Houellebecq in Platform (2003), a novel about sex tourism, soon, women and men will be equal (or rival) consumers in the business of sex tourism:

[…] women will become more like men. For the moment, they’re still very hung up on romance […]. As women attach more importance to their professional lives and personal projects, they’ll find it easier to pay for sex too; and they’ll turn to sex tourism. It’s possible for women to adapt to male values; they sometimes find it difficult, but they can do it; history has proved it. (p. 105)

In many ways, Cantet’s peceptions about women in sex tourism verifies Houellebecq’s; both appear to view sex tourism as testing ground for gender equality, or a gauge how far equality between the sexes has evolved. Specifically, gender equality here is measured through professional salaries that define purchasing power, and significant time away from work for pleasure through travel. However, sex tourism does not have to be exclusively framed by the lens of male-values. In some ways, Cantet has appropriated a female perspective on sex tourism, in this film. Ellen and company are not necessarily the types who are too hung up on romance, but they have not trashed the idea of romance either. Yes, these female sex tourists are as aggressive in their pursuit of orgasms as their male counterparts. But the women in the film are daughters of Eve as well, they eat the apple, and push the envelope of orgasm in Paradise, into edgier areas of temptation, particularly the seductive entanglements inherent in affaires de cœur. They are impoverished creatures who need the nourishments of romance, as some sort of “soul food”.

Currencies of labour

Inseparably, the young male bodies, in the film, and the scenic beauty of the resort are destinations of renewal. In the context of the women protagonists, the resort loses its power as a place that guarantees relaxation and comfort, without the presence of those bodies. In many ways, the idea of young male bodies and scenic, beach beauty materialise in the imagination of these protagonists as one physical geography.

Now the women live in their own cabanas, complete with familiar amenities of a furnished studio apartment; this is where their chosen young man, at a designated time, does not have to knock to see them, but just walks in, takes position in bed, and follows through their routines under the sheets. After these routines, the young men are discreet enough not to beg for payment, and, therefore, do not appear too desperate to be paid for services rendered. Instead, the young men assume that an agreeable amount of paper currencies is already inserted in their pants lying on the floor or chair, before they leave the cabanas. Here, the image of the young men as sex workers is quietly de-emphasised. But in many ways, the idea of de-emphasising the status of these young men as prostitutes is hardly choreographed and consciously imposed, in the plot and imagination of the film. The notion of these young men as prostitutes is repressed, quietly, through the very image of their bodies as very young male bodies, not yet adults or even young adults, but simply adolescents, or, in some cases, children.

Still, adolescents, the young men have other sources of income, outside the resort to help their families; Sue’s young man, for example, also earns an income from fishing. Thus, these young men cannot easily be accused of being inexperienced in life, but already possess significant degrees of precociousness in order to survive in their Haitian context; in one instance, we see Legba share part or all of his earnings with his mother. However, when the image of these young men and the image of women visitors are juxtaposed, the result proposes a layered equation of not only lovers being with each other but also of mother being with son, even though the bodies in question do not come from the same race. In that light, the sexual encounter exposes an incestuous dimension. And this dimension cannot be easily elided, because it is tattooed in the spirit of the film, intricate to the meaning of sexual subversion proposed by the story.

The maternal warmth of the women also omits the incestuous layer of the sexual transactions. This warmth itself is a powerful charm that makes the young men feel at home and can be viewed as a tropical space in which the young men travel into, away from their country’s economic conditions. This warmth welcomes them into a different country of social relations, perhaps a hint and approximation of upper-middle-class comfort in North America. But this charm, this warmth, is properly choreographed to ensure the observance of certain limits; it makes the sexual encounters fluid, somehow void of monetised transactions, and lyrical as uncontaminated fantasies of orgasm.

Cantet’s film, in some sense, can be viewed as a movie that looks at the idea of female paedophilia, and is brave in talking about it. Brenda’s relations with Legba is example, even though her sexual encounters with him as minor happens outside the film’s main plot, but years before – we are informed through recollection and conversations – when Legba was only 15. Ellen, too, has been with Legba in previous visits, when he was not yet 18; and we are informed about this, through conversations among the women. But what makes the subject of paedophilia easy to omit is the way inter-relations between the women and the young men are presented. The visuality of white-female power and sexuality, here, does not immediately propose cunning characters who only seek erotic pleasure for erotic pleasure’s sake. The film presents the women as both humanitarians and lovers. In the northern countries the women are from, these women are candidates for strict criminal prosecution, then incarceration; and we can assume they know this. But in the world of the Haitian resort they spend their summers, the women assimilate and occupy different rules of sexual conduct.

Skin of desire

Race underlines what can be viewed as common sense in social relations. For instance, it is common sense that, most nights, Legba and his friends are not welcome to eat in the resort’s main dining area; only whites are allowed there, or, in rare cases, Haitians who can pay. However, when the script does allow Legba to be in that area, he is with his women friends; they buy him dinner only after the resort manager’s strong protests not to allow Legba to dine with them. Indeed, Albert is simply doing his job, upholding the rules of the resort restaurant, even though he, his staff, and other guests have seen Legba and his friends being served sandwiches and drinks with the women during day-time, out there on the beach. In many ways, the prohibition against Legba and friends dining in the restaurant highlights an exclusive space, in the resort, reserved for paying, foreign guests who generate revenues for it. Nevertheless, any racist or exclusionary attitudes applied towards Legba and co-workers within resort grounds cannot ignore the idea that they are indelible cash-cows for it; they – their bodies, mainly – are the essential destinations of many tourists staying there. In that regard, the resort’s main function can be viewed as secondary or even peripheral destination: it hides and abolishes the sleaze of sex tourism and gives it a facade of tropical civility.

This act of excluding Legba in the restaurant inspires reflections, between Brenda and Sue, about racism by blacks against blacks. But Albert’s exclusion of Legba from eating in the restaurant is not necessarily discrimination between Haitians, but rather Albert’s disgust of Legba’s profession as prostitute to whites. Albert does not like whites, and keeps that disgust to himself. The idea that another Haitian is being “extra-cozy” with white folks like they are equals, in the restaurant, just a few feet away from Albert, fuels that disgust. In that restaurant scene, one can argue that Albert’s attitude to Legba, even though French appears to be Albert’s preferred tongue, personifies the Haiti in Baby Doc Duvalier’s time that sneers at the legacies of colonialism; to Albert, that legacy is embodied in the existence of the resort itself and the foreign capital that runs it.

In another restaurant conversation among the women tourists, black men in the US and black men in Haiti are compared. Here, these two groups of men are discussed, within the context of erotic desire. And, as expected, the general consensus among the women is that they like the young black men in Haiti more, especially because they are friendlier, and less arrogant. “Is it because they are closer to nature?” Brenda asks about Haitian men. Indeed, the conversation tolerates assessments about race that appears too casual, the kind that happen in relaxed company. Here, Brenda positions Haitian men, not in the context of civilisation but outside it, in nature.

Brenda and company do not necessarily hate black men in the US. But they come from affluent countries in which social relations between blacks and whites is an on-going struggle for equal participation between all the races in political, cultural, and economic spheres. These social relations generate attitudes and psychologies of assimilation, compromise, competition, and a vast range of negotiations between any race, to approximate processes that generate harmonious co-existence; in many ways, this is indispensable dimension of civilization itself, in the post-colonial world. Thus, when Brenda wonders if Haitian men are closer to nature, she is locating them outside a specific space and civilisation of co-existence she is familiar with. In the film, Haiti’s very own political, cultural, and financial economy is produced by histories of struggle and movements as well; but it is an economy that fosters a civilisation of co-existence different from that which frames Brenda’s view of the world; to her, outside her civilisation is nature.

Another way the film deals with the image of racial difference in a public space is when Legba brings Brenda to the streets of Port-au-Prince. Early in the film, Ellen actually invites Legba to show Brenda around the city, on foot. But this is before Ellen does not yet feel she is Brenda’s rival, when it comes to Legba. In the scene where Legba and Brenda enter a crowded city-alley to shop for local goods, Cantet’s camera frame is filled with faces looking at Legba and Brenda, as though Cantet shot this sequence in an uncontrolled environment. But uncontrolled or not, the inclusion of faces looking at Legba and Brenda in the shots is logical to the sequence; the faces are curious about a young man – one of their own – escorting a middle-aged white-woman, showing themselves in public like lovers. Naturally, Brenda’s whiteness stands out; but more so, Legba’s association with that whiteness appears to stand out even more. This association makes Legba look like he has “grown too tall” over everybody – to paraphrase one Haitian saying – something that probably needs trimming; in the middle of Legba and Brenda’s city-tour, a gun-man chases Legba.

On the morning Albert discovers Legba’s dead body on resort grounds, Ellen tells Brenda she has ruined everything, that “[her] stupidity killed him”, for thinking Legba is the love of her life. Brenda swallows Ellen’s sermon, as though Ellen is simply verbalising and confirming everything Brenda is already thinking after kissing the dead Legba in the ambulance. The night before, Ellen’s words also take Legba by surprise; she tells him she is afraid what might happen to him, that she will do anything to protect him:

Don’t go into town for a few days. […] Whatever you need, ask me. We can solve anything! […] If you’re really in danger, I can protect you. I have money, I’m respected here. I can get you out of here, with a passport. By tomorrow! Leave this right now. Live with me. We’ll always be together. You won’t have to work. […]

This is one of the high points of the film. Ellen advises Legba not only to abandon his job as escort but his entire livelihood in Haiti. However, Legba’s silence as Ellen delivers these words suggests her demanding attitude is suffocating him. While Ellen’s sense of power, here, has emphatic maternal dimensions, it is, primarily, not based on gender, but rather on the politics of her presence in Haiti; she is an agency of possibilities, because of her money, race, and connections. In some sense, this heightened moment of panic that also heightens Ellen’s sense of power, narrows her vision, and, for a while, turns her into a dictator, brimming with resolve, while vomiting disillusions, and bleak fantasies that try to secure her love-life from eternal nausea in New England. Indeed, Ellen offers Legba assurance and insurance for a better life; men do the same thing to women, in times of desperation, at the altar of love. However, the expressed intensity of this Wellesley professor’s affection for Legba tries to skin Legba away from Haiti, so she can bring him with her to the US not as souvenir, but to wear him and be with him as her perpetual tan. To Ellen, there is nobody close to Legba in the “goddamn stuck-up city” of Boston, for women over 40, because, she reminisces after his death: “He made me come almost without touching me.”

Dubois, Laurent. 2004. Avengers of the New World: The History of the Haitian Revolution. Harvard University Press
Houellebecq, Michel. 2002. Platform. Translated by Frank Wynne. Vintage International
Lewis, R. Anthony. 2004. “Language, Culture, and Power: Haiti Under the Duvaliers”, Caribbearn Quarterly (December) 50, 4.

Michael Caylo-Baradi read English at UC-Berkeley, and is currently employed at an information centre in Los Angeles

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