Heading South: An Interview with Laurent Cantet
by Emilie Bickerton

Laurent Cantet’s feature films to date have been modest, thoughtful, and somewhat varied. There have been three. His two earlier works, analytical in character, are focused on contemporary life in the French workplace. His latest film is a melodrama about women’s experience, and more literary and emotive in its genesis than intellectual.

Ressources Humaines (1999) explored the consequences of the newly introduced thirty-five-hour week for a factory manager and his (employee) father. In Cantet’s next film, the quietly tragic L’Emploi du temps (Time Out, 2001), we were given some insight into the protagonist’s secretive existence as he pretended to his family in France that he had a job at the UN offices in Geneva. A study of modern alienation, L’Emploi de temps depicts the desperation of a man who cannot be sustained by a work to live ethic, yet who is obsessed by an awareness of what society thinks he ought to do. As a result, he forces himself into a cycle of pointless car journeys to fill up his days and give his lies to his loved ones a semblance of veracity.

Cantet’s most recent film, Vers le sud (Heading South), is quite different, exploring a set of concerns not unrelated to his previous work, but articulated in a new style and in a radically altered context. The film is set in 1970’s Haiti, where we follow a group of fifty-something Western women on holiday, searching for romance and physical relations with local boys. Charlotte Rampling leads the pack in yet another appearance in Francophone cinema, continuing her renaissance as a mature actress.

Cantet’s first two films were anything but showy esthetically. Spare in their visual style, they depended on actor-driven, linear narratives. The first features were born of an intellectual desire to engage with the labour–alienation relationship as manifested in contemporary French society. By contrast, Vers le sud grew out of Cantet’s emotional response to his trip to Haiti in 2002 and his reading of Dany Laferrière’s short stories. Struck by the simplistic polarity of colonizer and colonized in Laferrière, Cantet seeks in Vers le sud to reconceptualize the crude ‘sex tourism’ of the stories as ‘love tourism.’ The desire exists, he argues, on both sides. His film portrays women in pursuit of more than forgettable, faceless sex.

Whilst Ressources Humaines and L’Emploi du temps were underwhelming visual affairs, Vers le sud is esthetically innovative, full of striking images, particularly those of racially contrasting bodies. Cantet provocatively provocatively presents young boys in the ways they are seen by the women, thus making his camera a substitute for their eyes and implicating the audience in their desire. As viewers we rationally reject and condemn their actions, but Cantet forces us to have a discomforting intimacy with those we criticize.

Haiti, also, is well captured. The monotony of the French and Swiss landscapes in L’Emploi du temps flying by the car window of protagonist Vincent (Aurelien Lecoing) without a second thought or cinematic relevance, is replaced in Vers le sud by a historically potent setting. Haiti in the Seventies and the brutal division between its white visitors and the burgeoning but disaffected native population is clear. The violent encounter between these two worlds is palpable, whether the women venture into markets, or dance with locals. Cantet’s camera is attuned to picking up on the underlying animosity and resentment as well as the brief, genuine emotions and attachments.

Disappointingly however, Cantet conveys Haitian social politics through a film noir structure. There is a background story in Vers le sud providing a glimpse into events occurring independently of the women’s pursuits. This is initially salutary; it encourages insight into Haiti beyond its Western tourists. Yet Cantet leaves the larger social story-thread hanging and eventually, disappointingly makes it into an inconsequential red herring.

Laurent Cantet’s comparative conservativism makes him a maverick in today’s French film scene. Unlike his peers, for example, Noé, Breillat, Dumont, and Denis, the route of extreme cinema has not tempted him. He inclines toward films that make sense of human relations and psychology. Vers le sud is a little more dreamy, more personally motivated than his typical projects, and eventually it is also less successful as a critical engagement with the issues it touches on. His next project is based on a ‘classe unique’ in a French village school, and although it is likely to be hyped as a ‘fictional Etre et avoir,’ it should primarily signal Cantet’s return to the more localized focus of previous works, setting him apart as a lucid critic of contemporary France.—Emilie Bickerton 

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Cineaste: If I were to pin down a particular subject or concern in your films it would be malaise—for example, the older American women in Ver Le Sud, who travel to Haiti looking for young lovers are full of an inner malaise derived from a sense of not quite belonging to society, or not fulfilling the roles society requires. Is this a fair assessment?

Laurent Cantet: To an extent—the women in Vers le Sud are searching for a place in the world, and a way of accepting themselves, a little like Vincent in L’Emploi du Temps. I feel I’m looking at people who do not have an appropriate place to themselves. As a result they accept to wear a mask, a social mask that allows them to play the game, to be acceptable to themselves and to others.

Cineaste: So partly you’re making a critique of contemporary society?

Cantet: Yes, but at the same time I think there are also existential problems involved. Of course I believe these problems arise from the material conditions of life, society, the current political situation, and so on. But also, the situations I present are universal: what is it to get old, to no longer feel physical desire? What is it to be the only white face in a black environment? I am asking where the problems lie and where they are played out and how people experiment with their difficulties. Really, I’m looking at that very intimate relationship one has with the world, and other people.

Cineaste: It’s striking in Vers le Sud how this intimacy comes through, and the reaction it has on the spectator. I would say that one feels even more disgust for Brenda (Karen Young) after her monologue. Was condemnation what you were after, or did you want to invite greater sympathy with this particular narrative device?

Cantet: Well, first of all, I try hard not to judge my characters. I think I always need to like them a little to then want to develop them, to make them exist or animate them. I try to show the complexity of a person’s psychology, as well as the world in which we struggle to exist, with all the questions that are posed in each one of us. However, I don’t want to carry any moral judgement.

For me Brenda’s monlogue in Vers le Sud is the great moment of sincerity in the film. Through it she also expresses things I can share: feelings of desire, the sensuality she is forbidden in her ordinary life and that now exists because she has been able to create this little, rather utopian, world for herself.

Cineaste: Yes, but it’s difficult to see the film only in this way because there is a darker side, namely the colonial basis on which these relationships exist, the political foundations of the story.

Cantet: Yes, but I don’t want to bring the film down to only that. It’s there, it’s clearly one of the questions in the film but it’s not as simple as: there we are, the evil exploiters and the poor exploited. I think on the contrary there is a far more complex relationship being played out and, as a result, something more enduring might exist. I don’t believe this question of desire works just one way, I think of what Dany Laferrière [who wrote the novella, La Chair du Maître, 1997 that inspired the film] told me at the very beginning of our collaboration: be careful not to make of the boys poor victims. He told me about his youth, living in Port-au-Prince when he would fantasize about the white women passing in the streets. He was quite capable of following a woman for a whole half-day just because her hair was blowing in the wind and the perfume she wore promised all the voluptuousness of the earth to him.

And here I think the relationship is reciprocal, there isn’t on the one side the woman dictating to the young boys, or (to make an even greater generalization) the colonizers and the oppressed. There is something far more complex being played out, and that’s really what the film is trying to show, by accessing the issue from multiple entry points.

Cineaste: There is a very striking scene in the film, in regards to this two-way power relationship: Brenda dances on her own, loses herself completely in the music and Legba (Menothy Cesar) can’t stand this…

Cantet: No he can’t, I think because precisely he feels she is mimicking—or aping—the native dance and in this investment, this integration, sees something indecent.

Cineaste: You could take it another way: Legba resented it when Brenda lost herself in the music, because she was moving away from him, taking no notice, asserting momentarily her independence.

Cantet: I saw it more as a gaze on this white woman who tries to dance like a Haitian, as though she were in a trance, like the kind you experience in voodoo ceremonies for example. And for Legba he felt there was something false in all of this.

Cineaste: One can quickly give Vers le Sud the label of “sex tourism.” In this regard why did you decide to base your film in the Seventies in Haiti, and not in Thailand say, today?

Cantet: Well, for many reasons. The desire to make the film came from my own trip to Haiti and the encounter I had with the country. Partly I felt revulsion, it really is so poor in parts that we can’t see it without feeling revolted, and we also feel the violence around—it exists and it’s very shocking. Yet at the same time, it’s an incredibly engaging country, for the people and how they are; you want to talk with them. I really wanted to work there and the idea for the film was born in the country and from that desire. Then there was the novella by Laferrière, which was for me like a second encounter, a literary one, of the kind that I have rarely experienced in my life. But having decided on making the movie in Haiti, it was impossible to set it in the present day because there is no more tourism in the country.

Cineaste: Is this very recent?

Cantet: For about fifteen years, the country has been in ruins, one has to realize this. The only foreigners there are those who work in the embassies, or NGO’s. So, I preferred to just mention at the start of the film that it was based in the seventies, without then going on to make a painstakingly historically accurate film.

Cineaste: And yet you do manage to make it very historically specific; we do recognise it’s the Seventies.

Cantet: Setting the film in the past did mean I could explore far more. After all, tourism has become industrialized today, and the relationships tourists have with locals are totally different. Mass tourism means the rules of the game are very clear: people go out in search of something very specific.

Cineaste: Yes, things have become much cruder, brutalized, without any emotional investment.

Cantet: Yes, that’s right, whereas in the Seventies we’re closer to the origin of this kind of tourism, that first-sought love, not just sex. What also allows Vers le Sud to be rather different is that we’re dealing with women going abroad, and not men. And they are, we could say, also oppressed. In Haiti they arrive with all their accumulated frustrations from the United States where they are in shackles: a woman over forty is no longer desirable, or she can’t talk of desire at that age. If we had done the opposite, filmed men going abroad, I think they would inevitably have arrived with the arrogance of male dominance. And thus, by virtue of having women as my subjects, the film is more nuanced.

Cineaste: In this sense it is better to understand the film as a particular case, rather than trying to attach broader themes to it.

Cantet: Yes, but at the same time it is a mass phenomenon! All you have to do is go to the Dominican Republic to realize that there are many single women who go over, no longer wanting to accept their solitude and proving instead to themselves that they can still be desirable; they can still live a love story. That seems to me something far more essential, integral, than just travelling so that you can have sex. That’s where I think there is a far more existential search that drives the journey, precisely because it’s not driven only by the aspiration to satisfy a purely sexual and immediate desire.

Cineaste: Yes, as you say, it’s not about a one-sided power relationship.

LC: Power circulates between the two involved.

Cineaste: You spoke about the Dany Laferrière novella that inspired the film. Why exactly—and this is a more philosophical question about your own idea of what film is—did you want to put his words into images? What is it that you feel film can bring to the story?

Cantet: To begin with, I think it’s a film that plays a lot on incarnations; we’re not faced with ideas or words, but really bodies; and in Vers le Sud the presence of bodies is essential. All you need do is put in the same frame Charlotte Rampling and Mênothy Cesar so that all the otherness of their bodies strikes us, embarrasses us even, or interrogates us at least. The other reason, at least what I like in cinema is that it’s not always conceptual, that we can approach such general questions as North-South relations, colonialism, exploitation of women, misery, etc., without having to add to this some categorical questions or chop things up completely into black-and-white distinctions. The more the subject lays itself open to grand themes, the stronger cinema is in bringing nuance to this, by allowing us to avoid crude distinctions.

Cineaste: And so, in this regard, how do you place yourself within French cinema’s tradition? I don’t see you as having very much in common with many young filmmakers in the country today, you differ from the sort of cinema du look they’re producing.

Cantet: If there were a name I should cite in my personal heritage, then it would be Rossellini. His cinema is one of revelation, the ‘real’ imposes itself on the characters, and things never arrive in a discursive fashion, but, little by little, they emerge at the surface. This is what touches me the most in Rossellini, in cinema in general—when I don’t have the impression that the film knows what it has to tell me, but rather, this arrives, emerges… And so, there is Rossellini, but afterwards there have been others. Pialat of course… But I think there are lots of directors who place themselves within this affiliation.

Cineaste: I was struck by the difference between L’Emploi du Temps and Vers le Sud. In the former the development of the story and the way you tell it visually was more traditional, let’s say, than in your latest film. I suppose for reasons that you’ve outlined, it was crucial to impose the images in Vers le Sud

Cantet: Yes, or especially, replace discussion with things that are communicated through impressions instead.

Cineaste: To come back to the location, has the film been screened in Haiti?

Cantet: Not yet. I may have the chance this summer to present it at a festival in a small town in the country as some Haitians who have seen it reacted very well. Haitians based in Paris and elsewhere in France have also responded well, saying it was the first time they had seen a film based in Haiti, shot by a foreigner, that nevertheless captured accurately the country. They liked that I spoke of it without compassion or a sense of culpability, embarrassed by my obviously shameful colonial heritage. Nor did I allow myself to be too burdened by the fact that Haiti is a country that the international community is effectively allowing to suffocate. To hear all this from the mouths of Haitians really made me very happy.

Cineaste: Apart from the forced delay with the coup in 2003, did you have problems when you eventually filmed in the country?

Cantet: Yes, for sure, in somewhat anecdotal ways perhaps. We would decide on a good location, and fifteen days before it would be impossible to go, deemed too dangerous. We had to constantly adapt to the local environment. I actually really liked this uncertainty, having to be reactive. There were also shoot-outs twice during filming, near where we worked. We all asked ourselves, should we stay or go? But then we saw those around us who lived in the country, who had experienced this their whole lives, and after ten minutes just got on with things. We felt a kind of decency in them and respect for them. We felt that if they could just pick themselves up like that, then we should follow suit, honor that kind of resilience.

Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.