21 October 2005 | KrisCheppaikode
Searing-- the most complex, controversial movie of the year!
I just saw the US premier at the American Museum of Moving Image last night [10/20/05]. Cantet and co. interweave three short stories by Haitian writer Dany Laferriere (not yet translated into English from French as of 10/21/05). Though the scope and themes of the stories differ considerably, "Vers Le Sud" is as shattering and masterful as Cantet's previous feature, "Time Out," and should similarly be talked about for years to come.
Cantet and cinematographer Pierre Milon have shot many incredibly complex emotional exchanges without relying on any obvious dialogue. Their confidence that it would cut together and 'play' so well on screen must be partially due to Cantet's having a co-writer who is also the editor (Robin Campillo). The story is told through subtle reactions, gestures and intonations ala "Time Out," but Vers's dialogue seems both more plentiful and more emotionally transparent.
"Vers" also contains more characters, incidents, and a more complex thematic scope than "Time Out." Where "Time" explored a single character's relation to work, pride, and masculinity, "Vers" explores 3 middle-aged white women's sexual and romantic desire for a teenage Haitian, black male prostitute. Cantet explores the central situation's inherent political, racial, sexual, emotional and age-related issues-- often in the same scene.
In doing so, Cantet / LaFerriere necessarily broach a number of taboo subjects: middle age women being openly sexual on screen, and being sexual with teenagers; women paying male prostitutes; white women with black men; women as one discarded, ignored caste, hooking up with another discarded, ignored caste (3rd world men of color); women giving sexual desire the same primacy in their lives as men traditionally have; the world's richest bedding the world's poorest; the willful blindness of the rich towards the suffering of the poor or foreign; American economic imperialism; the predatory nature of consumerist tourism.
In exploring these issues, Vers provokes a sense of moral/political outrage on par with the very angry, very moving "The Constant Gardener." The tourist women of "Vers" turn a willfully blind eye to the dire political / economic situation that drives vulnerable young men into their beds. To watch these women do this is infuriating; their desire becomes repellent, exploitative.
But at the same moment, we are also made to feel how touchingly human these women's needs are-- for love (Brenda), sex (Ellen) and affection (Sue). We experience their loneliness as achingly poignant, even tragic. During the Q&A, one middle-aged woman in the audience referred to the film as pro-feminist in its emotional honesty, and I agree.
The women's relations with their gigolos appear to be emotional two-way streets, albeit with a much wider lane for the Northerners. The women and young men do share affection; and it isn't hard to understand how the women could fool themselves into believing in the possibility of real love blossoming in these tropical, permissive environs.
But when disagreement or insecurity arises with the gigolos, the women's economic superiority gives them the final word. That the same characters in the same scene can simultaneously evoke nausea and tenderness is a testament to the skills of all involved.
The film feels very French in its tasteful restraint -- the sex is never shown -- and in the way it explores its politically charged themes largely through male/female relationships. The film therefore plays entirely as human drama, and never feels sensationalistic, didactic, or titillating.
I had a few *minor* quibbles with this great film. The performances of actors playing Ellen, Albert and Legba were pitch-perfect. But there were moments in Brenda and Sue's scenes when I felt them 'Acting'-- whether this is attributable to lapses in writing, acting, directing or editing is impossible to know. I enjoyed the monologues, delivered into the camera, but I thought they would have felt less artificial if another character had been written into the rooms with them, for the character to address. I also felt it lasted 1 or 2 scenes longer than necessary in the end.
Some have argued that the film should included more of Legba's perspective, but I disagree. Given the sensitivity of the film as a whole, the nationality of the original short story writer (Haitian), and in conveying Legba's emotions in particular, I'm sure that the storytellers made a conscious decision not to include more of Legba's perspective, and the film's structure is the stronger for it.
In fact, the film could only have been created by a group of artists working at the top of their form. Like "Time Out," there will not be a more complex film than Vers Le Sud this year (and I include my other art-house favorites 2046, Head-On, Last Days, Broken Flowers, Brown Bunny, The New World, and yes, Kung Fu Hustle). Here's hoping Vers gets a proper distribution.