We live in a cinema culture that can often unduly punish great filmmakers for making bad, unexpected, or somewhat uneven films. It’s almost as if we expect each new work of a major (or even emerging) filmmaker to stand as “great” in its own right rather than acknowledging the continually negotiated dialogue that is a filmmaking career. And given that most anticipated new films screen in that worst of contexts, the festival, with all the attendant buzz, buyers, hype, snap judgments, distractions, etc., it’s sometimes amazing that any films make it out alive. It seems silly that there was that bitten-nail few months when it looked like a now-acclaimed, obviously masterful, important, and bizarre film like demonlover might not find U.S release, but given the initial notices, at the time that scenario seemed all too likely. And yes, sometimes a Tsai Ming-liang can drop a real stinker (a bad example as he hasn’t yet), but that doesn’t mean we critics shouldn’t try to foster a culture where said stinker can’t find screen space, even if only for a little while.
I was very worried about Laurent Cantet’s highly odd Vers le sud after Toronto ’05 for those very reasons, so I was quite excited to receive word that it had found U.S. distribution. Veering almost completely off-course (and off-continent—the action takes place in 1980s Haiti) from his tightly coiled and contained previous features, Human Resources and Time Out, Vers le sud feels flabby, unsure, perhaps even a bit superficial, at first. Set in a beachside resort where older rich white woman from the U.S. bathe in the sun and frolic with young Haitian men, the exchange of leisure for labor marks the most immediate point of departure from Cantet’s earlier films. Except that it doesn’t really: we’re still in a world of labors and commodities, rules and regulations—he’s just moved his core inquiry into a realm circumscribed by pleasure (or perhaps it’s pleasure that’s circumscribed by the aforementioned). In short: a tourist industry of a very sexual variety and with a host of troubling colonial implications at play.
Central to the plot is a love triangle which finds Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young squaring off for the affections local stud Legba (Ménothy Cesar), and their waltzes of passive aggression are my favorite parts of the film. Young, a veteran of various television shows, delivers a highly specific performance that runs the gamut from insufferably pouty, to winsomely charming, to painfully, almost unbelievably awkward, providing a nice foil to the reliably steely Rampling. The bulk of the film is so focused on this immediately personal interaction, that it’s easy to wonder if the very serious minded director of Human Resources headed south himself. Except that again, what we’re looking at is “work”—just of a different variety.
Later in the film, Cantet leaves the confines of the resort to tour us through the more ravaged sections of Port-au-Prince to mixed results—its here that the spare economy of the earlier portions breaks down, and the film becomes more obviously politicized, even as it perhaps begins to flounder a bit. The context is important, if the delivery is slapdash (reminds me a bit of that whole Draft Riot business in Gangs of New York), and I’m sure Vers le sud is going to take more than a few hits for it. Even so, it’s a very flawed, wonderfully photographed movie that I still like very much—perhaps not a feather in its creator’s cap, but I can’t imagine it’s not a step off to some equally fascinating place for one of our most fascinating filmmakers.