Set in 1970s Haiti under the post-colonial repressive regimes of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Vers le sud provides an incisive and provocative recontextualization of cultural imperialism as neocolonialism – specifically, in its economic manifestation – as Westerners, particularly middle-aged women, converge in an idyllic seaside resort where handsome, native young men from the slums of nearby Port-au-Prince vie for the favored company of the women in exchange for money and access to social privilege. From the opening sequence of a curious encounter between a polite and mannered man, Albert (Lys Ambroise) and an imploring, desperate woman, Laurent Cantet reflects the contextual ambiguity (and complexity) of social interrelationships within this seemingly hermetic paradise, as he awaits the arrival of the latest hotel guest, an attractive American divorcée named Brenda (Karen Young), and the native woman attempts to give Albert her attractive, young daughter to him to serve in some nebulous, unspecified capacity in an attempt to save her from the fate of many impoverished, pretty girls within the fear-riddled social climate of government-sanctioned, tonton macoutes thugs who operate with impunity throughout the city. This prefiguring dynamic of servility, myopic self-interest, ignorance, entitlement, and rejection provides the framework to the unraveling of Brenda’s long-awaited idealized fantasy of returning to the resort as she attempts to recapture the euphoria of her sexual awakening with an undernourished and obliging then-15 year-old boy named Legba (Ménothy Cesar) who had once insinuated himself into her company for meals, and who she would, in turn, violate under the romantic delusion of reciprocated attraction. Now the constant companion of a handsome and imposing, if aloof and forbidding Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a professor at an exclusive women’s college who spends her vacation trying to slough off the discontentment of her repressed and unfulfilling life, Legba soon becomes the unwitting pawn in a desperate, calculated tug-of-war between the two equally possessive, determined, and vulnerable women. Continuing in the sociological vein of his recent film Time Out, Vers le sud expounds on Cantet’s recurring expositions on the masked – and masqueraded – unarticulated psychology of quotidian and social ritual.
During the Q&A for the film, Cantet recounted his inability to shoot most of the scenes on location in Port-au-Prince due to the rampant lawlessness and random violence pervasive in the area (the resort sequences were filmed in the Dominican Republic). In a way, this pervasive anarchy can be seen as an evolution of the dysfunctional relationship between post-colonial African nations and western society, as commodification, territoriality, and favorable compensation reflect the everyday social dynamics of an implicit cultural and economic imperialism, where humanity and sense of community have been replaced by instinctual self-preservation and the volatile cocktail of impoverishment, privilege, and desire.
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