Jennifer Merin interviews Laurent Cantet re “Heading South”

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LAURENT CANTET‘S SEXUAL IMPERATIVES

French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s concerned his that film, “Heading South”– in which middle-aged sexually repressed North American white women visiting Port-Au-Prince fall in love with a young, lusty, impoverished black Haitian man– might be misconstrued as being about sexual exploitation.

In France, I’ve had to fight that impression, to justify my making this film,” says Cantet. “This film’s not about exploitation– I don’t want people thinking ‘oh, those poor Haitian guys are being exploited by those bad American women.’”

Cantet conceived of “Heading South” in 2002, while visiting Port-Au-Prince, where he was shocked by Haiti’s poverty, attracted by its sensuality and intrigued by the complex social and political situation.

“I wanted to make a film about what it means to be a tourist in such a world– where sexuality is an expression of social, political and economic power and only physical desire can bridge the huge gap between rich and poor,” says Cantet, who based the script on Dany Laferriere’s short stories– which he read on the plane back to Paris.

“Laferriere’s book presents a kaleidoscopic image of Port-Au-Prince, showing tourists who, like the women in the film, avoid seeing the poverty by staying inside their hotels. Laferriere was adamant that the film explore whether in that context, sexual relations could lead to a realization other than humiliation and oppression, something more than guilt or compassion. I agreed with him about that.”

MERIN: I found “Heading South” somewhat titillating and very sad, very moving– but not exploitive. Why this reaction in France?

CANTET: I’m glad to hear you say that. I think the French see “Heading South” as different from my previous films, which are thought to be militant. For me, there’s continuity– and, I don’t think my films are militant. I’m not militant– I’m involved, engagé, concerned about what’s happening around me, yes, but I don’t propose answers. The world’s very complex and I like to show this complexity. I don’t think I’m the ‘cineaste du travail‘ that they expect me to be– so this film surprised them. They think because the women have sex with Legba, the film’s about sexual exploitation. I agree that it’s politically correct to denounce sexual exploitation, but that‘s what this film is about. So, now I must justify myself and making the film.

MERIN: How do you do that?

CANTET: By emphasizing the continuity between “Heading South” and my other films. Like the question of masks– at the beginning of “Heading South,“ the old women says everybody’s wearing a mask, so you don’t know who’s good or bad. In my films, characters don’t show who they are, they present images– as though masked– before others. And, my films link intimacy and political issues.

MERIN: How so in “Heading South?”

CANTET: The film’s more political than its characters. They’re two oppressed groups coming face to face– the Haitians are politically and economically oppressed, and the women have no rights to their desires. Since they‘re equally oppressed, their intimacies aren’t exploitation. If men were coming to get young girls, for example, that would be sexual tourism. Then, the film would be about exploitation.

MERIN: How do personal politics inform your filmmaking?

CANTET: Well, I’m very far left– but I don’t make politics, I make films. I think my most overtly political film is probably “Human Resources,” where I wanted to show that people who think we’re living in a class-free society– where the class dialectic no longer exists– are wrong.

MERIN: And in “Heading South?”

CANTET: The film addresses many issues simultaneously– north and south, black and white, how tourists go someplace and without being involved or risking anything, think they’re intimate with local people. That kind of hypocrisy is dangerous. But I wanted the women in “Heading South” to be guiltless, acting from their pure need without self-consciousness or compassion.

MERIN: Why aren’t any French women in “Heading South?”

CANTET: In the 70s, people rarely crossed the ocean for vacations. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is European but lives in Boston. More importantly, these women seem American rather than European, because they’re puritanical. Maybe this is my making stereotypes, but I don’t think French or Italian women have the same problems with their bodies or with aging.

MERIN: Why so?

CANTET: Religion is less important for Europeans than for Americans. For example, in the film, Brenda (Karen Young) is very puritanical and very strangled by that. I can’t imagine her as a French woman. In the story, she’s a Baptist minister’s wife– which means nothing to French audiences, so I cut it. When someone’s that oppressed, just open the door a little and the reaction is huge– anything can happen. For her, meeting Legba (Méthony Cesar) opened that door. There’s no going back.

MERIN: Were there other story changes?

CANTET: Yes. In the story, Albert (Lys Ambroise) the hotelier was also in love with Legba, but that was distracting. I found it more interesting, more focused, if Legba’s just this guy with this body who seduces women and is seduced by them.

MERIN: Do you rewrite often? Improvise on set?

CANTET: I write a first version, then cast, then rehearse a lot– especially when working with nonprofessional actors because they need to understand their character, or sometimes I must change their character to fit them better. I like this give and take. It helps develop characters, and is good for the film. This time, it was hard because Charlotte was in Paris, Karen was in New York and Louise Portal was in Montreal while Méthony and Lys were in Port-Au-Prince, and I was I don’t know where. We couldn’t’ rehearsal until a week before shooting, when we went to the Domincan Republic, read the script, tested situations and made changes. That week was a bit too short for me, but we managed.

MERIN: Is writing, shooting or editing most important to you?

CANTET: Shooting, I think. If you don’t have it in shooting, you won’t get it in editing. Although, it helps to have the same guy who co-wrote the script– Robert Campillo–edit the film, too. Robert and I have similar sensibilities. We attended cinema school together years ago.

MERIN: Why set “Heading South” during the 1970s?

CANTET: Today’s Haiti’s a ruined country. No tourists, no hotels, no beaches, no nothing. We shot resort sequences in the Dominican Republic, but city scenes were shot in Port-Au-Prince.

MERIN: How was filming in Haiti?

CANTET: Dangerous. Armed gangs were kidnapping and killing people. I was concerned for the crew. I was responsible for them. For myself, I got used to it. That’s terrible to say, but you get used to it. We had guards while we worked– we had to, for insurance purposes, because the crime level made it unreliable that we could finish the film.

MERIN: if there’s a lesson to be learned from “Heading South,“ what would it be?

CANTET: That things are more complex than how we think of them. I don’t want this film summed up in two sentences. I want it to be as complex and as illogical as life itself. That’s what I’m always trying to show. That’s what I don’t like about most scripts– that they’re more logical than life is. Life is arbitrary, and risky. I want to show it that way. (Published in New York Press)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).