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A free-trade agreement of sex and respect

July 16, 2006|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

THE well-worn truism that you can't leave yourself behind wherever you go has an equally valid counterpart -- that travel can sometimes help you uncover a hidden, truer version of yourself. It certainly appears to work that way for the American protagonists of "Heading South (Vers le Sud)," a pointed new French film that pursues the ramifications of Western discontent and middle-aged female desire against the backdrop of 1970s Haiti.

A pack of affluent, loveless North American women journeys to a pristine beachside resort each year to bask in the affections of local young men. The men in turn embrace the intruders: In the transaction they gain not just the means to survive, but possibly the only measure of dignity afforded in a society that tramples over its citizens.

Director and co-screenwriter Laurent Cantet adapted the narrative from a collection of short stories by Haitian-born author Dany Laferriere. Though the book is set a quarter of a century ago, during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, "I had the feeling that I could have written it," Cantet said. "It reminded me of being in Port-au-Prince, where anything can happen at any time. When you go out in the street, you could get killed before you reach the corner -- or you could meet someone and spend the whole day talking about life. The book also brought me back to what I'm always trying to do when I'm writing a script or filming a film -- to mix very political issues with very intimate issues."

"Heading South," which opens Friday in L.A., is the third feature film from Cantet, who is 46 and celebrated in France for a kind of cinematic realism veined with subtlety and restraint. His previous two films investigated the idea of work as a source of economic and spiritual sustenance. In "Time Out (L'emploi du Temps)" (2001), a business consultant who cannot bring himself to acknowledge to friends and family that he has been let go, weaves a web of deceit to maintain the charade of employment. His first full-length picture, "Human Resources (Ressources Humaines)" (1999), also dealt with redundancy: Welders in a small French town see their jobs threatened by the proposed shrinking of the work week to 35 hours -- a hot-button issue in France at the time.

That Cantet was able to illuminate his characters' struggles with tenderness -- and without judgment -- was an achievement that persuaded Charlotte Rampling to sign on as one of his leading ladies in "Heading South." "Knowing Laurent from his work, I felt that in his hands, this very sensitive subject could be very beautifully portrayed," the 60-year-old actress said from her Paris home. "It's something that hasn't been really spoken about -- women doing this particular kind of thing, and going about it in almost a man's way."


'On the edge'

DRAWN to characters "in difficulty" and filled with "hopes and failures," Rampling took delight in the part of Ellen, a regal, seemingly cynical French lit professor at Wellesley College who professes to have no romantic illusions about her Haitian lovers. Reviewers have been extolling her courageous, nuanced performance, one in a string of unflinching portrayals of mature sexuality. "When you're in films that need an effort from the spectator because they tackle difficult subjects, you can't expect necessarily to always hit the right mark" she said of her portrayal. Anyway, she added, "I like to be a little bit more on the edge than Hollywood is." She calls her recent collaborations with French film directors such as Francois Ozon and Cantet "the kind of work I really privilege."

Cantet, who was born in Melle, a small town near Poitiers, and graduated from France's prestigious Institute des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, spent the first 15 years of his career working in television, co-directing, among other things, war documentaries in Sarajevo and Beirut. His cinematic output can be seen as a hybrid between the politically engaged French films of the late '60s and early '70s and the poetic, contemplative cinema that succeeded it. The director believes that the last two decades have marked a return to realism of sorts in French-language cinema -- and he acknowledges that he's part of a continuum that also includes the Dardenne brothers, Erick Zonca and Bruno Dumont.

"When I made 'Human Resources' -- which was one of the first films that talked about working conditions -- I was told it was very lucky that it was produced for TV, because nobody would ever pay to see such a movie in theaters," the soft-spoken Cantet said back in April, during an L.A. trip to promote an advance screening of his latest film. "Nowadays, I think producers and distributors realize that this kind of film attracts people more than we can imagine."

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