Wednesday, July 26, 2006

About Face

Charlotte Rampling is one of those regal actresses whom, however evil her character or - in those odd instances - autopilot her acting, one may merely sit back and explore her magnificently sculptural mug. She is one of the few remaining denizens of class in a world of Nicole Richies. Never shying from tempestuous roles (in fact, at times it would seem she favors those which make her average, like in The Swimming Pool or horribly degraded, The Night Porter), Rampling's newest offering, Vers Le Sud (Heading South) casts her as a British emigrant/control freak of a professor who, during her lengthy summer months, vacations at an exotic and idyllic resort town in Haiti. Rampling, the haven's self-proclaimed queen bee, is one in a group of regulars who have their pick of the local native boys. It's sexual sightseeing they're after, though the regular balance of things is upset by the arrival of Brenda (Karen Young, herself a facsimile of Rampling). It seems, a few years back, she and her husband took the 15 year old Legba (Ménothy Cesar) under their wing. Then, one unsuspecting night, Brenda yielded to her burning passion of the child and took him on a secluded beach. Now she has returned to reunite with the boy.

Though terrifically critical (at times), director Laurent Cantent (Time Out) allows the viewer to understand the womens' intent. He humanizes them in a way which allows more sympathy than one might expect to find in a story about an impoverished island where wealthy and sexually voracious women have their way with the powerless, penniless men who inhabit it. Vers Le Sud serves as a wonderful document of orientalization and of the internal struggle between personal conduct and private passions(a theme similarly explored in Lars Von Trier's Manderlay). In a conversation with Brenda, who is initially hesitant to partake in the sexual tourism, Ellen (Rampling) explains what differentiates these men to those in Harlem. They are barechested savages. Her explanation lacks sympathy or censorship. This is what these women were raised to understand as truth; this is how the black man has been hitherto represented in white civilizations. And as women of culture, women who know better, their identification of these men as savages takes them to a younger, safer time. But also, and of far greater importance, they comprehend the regression of their gaze, and this violation of respectable social codes excites them. Brenda could never cum before her Haitian endeavors. Ellen finds all Bostonians dull and trivial. This is true passion - under the sun, in the crystal blue waters, white on black. Taboo.

There's a terrific scene, perhaps the film's best, where Brenda finally gives way to her lusty instincts. A band is playing at an outdoor dancehall and the rhythm becomes more intense. Brenda, lost in the moment, not to mention the arms of Legba, cuts loose and begins to writhe and throb, emulating (in her mind) Josephine Baker, or some similar pop culture figure - i.e. all that she pretends to know about Black culture. The primarily black crowd stops and stares cautiously, curiously at the woman whose tourism has gone one step too far. She may visit, but she can never be.

Vers Le Sud has its remarkably poignant moments, but peppering the film, and in some cases, canceling out the good, some hopelessly trite moves lead to a very heavy handed final act. In a scene which could have come straight out of Crash (albeit, with a far better cinematographer), Legba sits in a shanty's kitchen and looks at the life-worn face of his loving mother who dotes on and chastises him for his shenanigans. Of course, Legba has been saving all of his stud-money for her. It's a bit too simple of a scene for a film which establishes great density in its other climates.

Rampling leaps into her role with a feral gusto while Young leaves a bit to be desired. The physical acting is all there, but her speach is hopelessly theatrical, recalling the weaker moments of Lili Taylor. It's a far better film than either of Cantent's previous ventures and a rather fantastic indictment of culture robbing. But for god's sake, does every black man have to be the purest, nicest angel known to man? I mean, after Crash, I lost all of the remainder of my white guilt. The simpler bits here merely drove the nail in the coffin.


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