It may seem unfair to compare a Mo'Nique comedy with an art-house movie directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Laurent Cantet and starring Charlotte Rampling. But in fact, both movies could learn from each other. Phat Girlz needed more believability, while Heading South could use some more personality combining resources, they might have gotten a groove on. But as in his international breakthrough Human Resources, Cantet demonstrates a social conscience without evincing the storytelling skill to fully convey his points to an audience.
The movie is set in the late 1970s at a resort in Haiti, situating us during the Baby Doc Duvalier era and ensuring that AIDS isn't a part of the picture yet. Cantet also uses a desaturated palette that makes the film look as if it might have been resurrected from the '70s (though some of his stylistic touches are not; we'll get to that). Three years prior, Georgia native Brenda (Karen Young) had come on vacation in the fall with her husband and bought food for an impoverished local teen named Legba (Ménothy Cesar, in an impressive debut), whom she then snuck away with to have sex. "It was my first orgasm, and I was 45," she recalls. Returning solo during the summer season, she's seeking out Legba again, partially for the hot tropical lovin' and partially because she likes the idea that she might be able to somehow "save" him.
But Legba's a pro and has many other women seeking his services, chief among them regular attendee Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a professor at Wellesley. Initially, she takes a mildly bemused attitude to what she sees as Brenda's naiveté toward the local sex trade, but bad feelings start to develop when they both end up wanting Legba in their beds at the same time. Meanwhile, Legba has his own problems, though it's a significant problem with the movie that we're never really clear what they are.
At various times throughout the story, things fade to black, and a title card appears with one of the main character's names, followed by a monologue to the audience, either in voice-over or addressed directly to the camera. These moments are the closest we get to understanding any of the personalities involved, but they add a note of '90s postmodernism that feels odd, as if we're suddenly on The Real World: Haiti. Brenda in particular is an odd case her major dilemma of falling in love with a hot sex worker is something any lonely person might relate to, yet toward the end of the movie, she starts talking and acting as if she's clinically insane, somewhat out of the blue.
Cantet seems like he's trying to make a link between crime and poverty in Haiti and the sex trade, implicitly blaming the women's actions even as he sympathizes with their desires. But the connection is never properly made. Tragedy occurs late in the game, but other than the fact that it happens near the resort, to an employee, there's no direct cause and effect. The closest we get to a possible cause is an incident involving a small child and a corrupt cop that has nothing to do with the women or their lusts. Perhaps we as the audience are implicated, made to lack understanding in the same way the privileged First Worlders onscreen are, but unless you plan on doing your Haitian homework and returning for a second viewing, that doesn't exactly make for a rewarding viewing experience.
Part of the plot confusion may be because the screen story is an amalgamation of several different tales by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière (How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired), whose works aren't readily available in English. One might assume he'd offer more of the Haitian perspective, which would, frankly, be more interesting than the sex lives of middle-aged women, a topic done to death in contemporary French cinema. In the end, one gets the sense that Cantet and his cast and crew mainly wanted to get paid to make a movie on a beautiful Santo Domingo beach among beautiful people.