In ``Heading South," the French writer-director Laurent Cantet does something that educated, upscale audiences may find exasperating in the extreme: He takes a tinderbox of racial and sexual exploitation, pours gasoline all over it, and refuses to light the match.
Yet if the cool watchfulness of his tawdry tale blunts its impact -- and neuters its political correctness -- the socioeconomic underpinnings of gringo tourism are no less damningly revealed. The movie uncovers an unheralded and unseemly facet of globalism: the outsourcing of female sexual bliss.
The time is the late 1970s, the place Haiti under the iron rule of ``Baby Doc" Duvalier. Not that anyone on the white sand beaches of the Hotel Petit Anse is paying attention to politics. Well-heeled Americans and Europeans fleeing the cold, they arrive expecting to be pampered by the resort's staff of discreet locals.
Some of the repeat visitors -- single ladies of a certain age -- have come expecting to be serviced in a different fashion. The arrangement is informal and unspoken: A woman may gaze out at the ranks of dark-skinned beach boys, choose one to rub suntan oil on her back, then retire to her cabana for further ministrations. Money does change hands, but no one is so rude as to call the relationship by its proper name.
Within this sybaritic henhouse, Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is the undisputed queen bee. A French-born professor at Wellesley -- ``There's nothing in Boston for women over 40," she snorts, and I'll leave any disputes with that to you -- Ellen is caustic and regal, yet she glows with the hedonism of a sexually alive woman who has crammed her libido into two weeks out of the year.
The king of the beach, meanwhile, is Legba (Menothy Cesar), impossibly beautiful and a natural leader to the rest of the local boys. For the most part he ``belongs" to Ellen -- we see her snap the leash when he strays -- but the appearance of Brenda (Karen Young), a naive Atlantan who was the first to seduce Legba some years back, sets a power play in motion. It doesn't seem much of a contest at first: Ellen bares her fangs, and clouds pass across the sun. Ironically, Brenda's earnest foolishness proves to be a weapon of unexpected strength, and its blade cuts both ways.
``Heading South" spends a lot of time -- perhaps too much -- dissecting the women's delusions with what only seems like sympathy. Cantet's previous films, 1999's ``Human Resources" and 2001's ``Time Out," were subversive office-place dramas that probed what work means to people who barely see the larger outline of their lives. Despite the new film's shock value, the concerns are similar.
Legba and his friends are sex workers, snared in webs of race, gender, class, and colonialism that no one dares comment on. (The women are paying for paradise, after all.) Whatever power he possesses in the confines of the hotel vanishes the moment he steps back into Port-au-Prince. A handful of scenes in which Legba is wooed by an ex-girlfriend (Anotte Saint Ford), now the mistress of one of Baby Doc's military officers, makes the parallel clear: They're both slaves trading on their sexual charisma as long as they can, and it's never long enough.
Legba doesn't coalesce as a fully drawn character, though -- he's magnetic but shallow, and you could argue that Cantet is indulging in an artistic colonialism of his own. (The resort's aging maitre d', played by Lys Ambroise, is a sadder, wiser, and more intriguing character, but his scenes are frustratingly few.) The women interest the filmmaker even after they've exhausted the patience of the audience. Part of the problem is that much of the film is in English -- a first for the French director -- and that Young is as believably from the American South as I am from Ulan Bator. (Rampling gets by on her accent and on the sense she'd crush anyone silly enough to doubt her.)
A nervy but muddleheaded work, then, with sharply unpleasant things to say about the First World's moral strip-mining of the Third but an overly tactful way of saying them. ``Heading South" bares the worst sort of privileged hypocrisy and then orders up another cocktail.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.