When Charlotte Rampling in Heading South complains about how difficult it is for older women to get laid in Boston, the comment could just as well apply to middle-aged actresses cruising for roles in Hollywood -- American cinema likes its silver foxes in unthreatening, motherly positions, so the grand Lioness of Kink, in full bloom at 60, heads over to European screens to be properly challenged and appreciated. Rampling's character in Laurent Cantet's sharp, subtle analysis of sexual tourism travels to overseas shores for not dissimilar motives, though this tropical sojourn is fraught with unsettling politics, trenchantly desiccated. The setting is Haiti, 1979: Papa Doc Duvalier's brutal dictatorship and the nation's many miseries are just a distant whiff at the swanky Port-au-Prince hotel where Rampling's Wellesley professor presides luxuriantly in sexual holiday. Good times are what she's after, and she finds them with Ménothy Cesar, the beach gigolo who lavishes her with virile attention; their romping seems like a mutually pleasurable encounter, but because this is the filmmaker of Time Out, it's also an example of degrading capitalist-imperialist commodification, a transaction surreptitiously yet insidiously carried out. Augustly aware of how money puts her in a privileged position in this "dung heap," Rampling just wishes to be left with her illusions; Karen Young, a fellow menopausal traveler, arrives at the hotel desperate to revive her passion for Cesar, and the Caribbean jaunt soon darkens with jealous manipulation.
Louise Portal plays the third vacationer, but the crux of Heading South remains with the tug-of-war between Rampling and Young for nubile, young Cesar, and the racialized, politicized implications the relationships set off. Sunbathing with promptly available locals, the women are part of a meretricious global paradise willfully ignorant of the very conditions driving these men to their beds; when Young asks why poor Haitians put up with the corrupt government's lavish squandering, the well-meaning blindness of the remark momentarily pricks the idyllic bubble. Michel Houellebecq's original stories align tourism with predatory economics, yet because Cantet displays an almost Fassbinder-like sensitivity to emotional shifts in power, every character swells beyond the puppetry of condescending dreck like The Constant Gardener. Aesthetically and emotionally, the work is far closer to Claire Denis' Chocolat, down to a complex femininity of gaze (Cesar posing his ass in bed for Rampling's camera, Young savoring the memory of the way he would look at her) that is gradually and disturbingly revealed to be entrapping, boiling Cesar down to only a luscious physique up for rental, a body denied even the voice of the foreigners' personal monologues. Emotion throws off the neo-colonist equation -- Cesar's ride with an old girlfriend seals his fate, corpses invade the complacent utopia, Rampling chastises Young's "goddamn syrupy love." The hotel manager (Lys Ambroise) understands a tourist's dollar as more damaging than weapons; it attests to the film's multi-layered inquiries that Young's Caribbean journey ultimately emerges as both spiritually liberating and culturally polluting, romance and horror under the sun.
Half Nelson, the season's mandatory Indie-Everybody-Exalts-to-the-Heavens, shares with Heading South a couple of overlapping elements -- couples mismatched in age and race, a milieu's stunting dangers, straight-to-camera speeches. In Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's picture, however, the duo is an eighth-grade teacher and a 13-year-old student, the setting is a Brooklyn neighborhood, and the monologues pitched at the lenses are class presentations about old-school radicalism (Brown v. the Board of Education, Gen. Pinochet, Dan White's "Twinkie" defense, etc.). Ryan Gosling, the teacher, wakes up in a squalid flat and goes to his social studies class to define history as "change over time" to a room of black pupils: Dangerous Minds infested with handheld zooms, the hook here being that the inspirational white authority figure's an imploding crackhead. "You can change one person," he assures a couple nightclub chicks, the obvious sincerity emerging from the disheveled slur of his voice, yet when the basketball game is over he cannot help sneaking into the girls' empty locker room to light up his pipe; Shakeera Epps, the student, finds him nodding off in the toilet, a shaky role-model for the young loner. Prematurely world-weary (absent dad, overworked mom, jailed brother), Epps is already acquainted with the harshness of life and boasts a squashed toughness, not expecting anything from anyone; Gosling plays one of the twin surrogate-fathers she gravitates to, the other being Anthony Mackie's likable local dope-pusher, ready to school her in the ways of the trade.
The most appealing elements of Half Nelson lie in its absences: its lack of violence, of divisiveness, of fraudulently instantaneous salvation. Gosling confronts Mackie about the drug dealer's influence on Epps, but by this time the teacher himself has become a doped-up, far more unstable wreck -- eyes popped and rubbed, gum fervidly chewed, palms frantically clapped when not being ran over his face, the whole bag of addict-tics that the talented performer nonetheless manages to bundle up into a specific specimen of anger, despair and vulnerability. Mackie recruits Epps to make a delivery, and who's in the motel room waiting for his bag of goodies but Gosling, turning his eyes from inspiration to desolation: How did he reach this point? Fleck and Boden throw in an old girlfriend now married, a copy of Malcolm X Speaks resting on a shelf, and deluded hippie-folks lost in a wine haze, but the character exists primarily as a vessel for white, liberal guilt. Why intercut Gosling getting down with a fellow teacher and Epps dollying herself up in a mirror? Or the mammy figurines in Mackie's home? The picture hails from Sundance with its pockets bulging with progressive intentions, but in between the calculated uplift and the garbling of Ken Loach's grittiness, things are automatically swallowed whole by the critics who praised Little Miss Sunshine as the last word in independent filmmaking. Mutually redemptive friendship is far from objectionable in times when actual hope is rare, yet the filmmakers bask disingenuously in their tidy vision of border-busting healing. Heading South provokes by showing the consequences of our actions, while Half Nelson numbs with the idea that we're helplessly "part of The Machine."
Speaking of helpless, Neil LaBute fumbles into genre territory with his dippy remake of The Wicker Man, flapping through every single thriller mechanism like a fish tossed out of its aquarium. The atmospheric 1973 British original was fascinated by the spectacle of religious repression teased by pagan sexuality, Edward Woodward sweatily hanging on to his virginity as a nekkid Britt Ekland ululated on the other side of the wall; LaBute Americanizes the intrigue, and, because he is interested not in eroticism but only in the sourness it leaves behind, his version drains the mystery and ups the flabbiness of the narrative. The plot, lest anyone think LaBute is doing hack-for-hire work, is actually In the Company of Men in reverse, the man now the pawn in the monstrous matriarchal game -- Nicolas Cage, a highway patrolman traumatized by a red herring (err, I mean a crash), ventures into an isolated, sinister colony where the women (ruled by Ellen Burstyn) reign supreme while the fellas are ominously silent. Cage looks for a missing girl, but the hammy rasps and whispers of Angelo Badalamenti's score alert even the village idiots that he's just a lamb being led to slaughter, with tons of accidental yuks to soothe the tedium of LaBute's misogyny. When The Wicker Man offers more laughs than Talladega Nights, it might be a sign for the auteur to switch brands to comedy, particularly when his puny worldview already veers so close to self-parody.
Reviewed September 6, 2006.