Contemporary French Civilization

O is for Orientalism: the dynamics of the sexual tourist gaze in Laurent Cantet’s Vers le sud/Heading South (2005)

Contemporary French Civilization (2021), 46, (1), 27–47.

Abstract

This article explores the Orientalist dynamics of North/South sexual tourism in Laurent Cantet’s Vers le sud/Heading South (2005). The narrative of the film is structured around the self-interested motivations of three white middle-aged bourgeois Western women who travel from North America to Haiti in the late 1970s in order to explore their sexuality in what they perceive as an island paradise, effectively exiling themselves from the codified social behavior expected of them in their homeland. The women avail themselves of the pleasures offered by young black Haitian men, often in exchange for money or goods, and fuel one-sided fantasies of romantic love with their local hosts, seemingly oblivious to the Orientalist nature of such an imbalance of social and economic power. The article explores the historical context of the political repression and violence of late-1970s Haiti under the Duvalier regime, as well as the manifestations of spatial politics represented in the film. In its Haitian setting, Vers le sud sheds light on a relatively unfamiliar cultural and social milieu for the Western/Northern audience, with the director keenly aware of the exoticism of the subject matter and the impossibility of the film to maintain its neutrality in a problematic engagement with the Orient/South. The article argues that the privileged position of the film’s protagonists is matched not only by Cantet’s directorial gaze, but also by the intellectual detachment of postcolonial scholars such as the article’s authors, who acknowledge that their engagement with the subject matter risks re-enacting the Orientalist dynamics they seek to expose.

Cet article a pour but d’examiner la dynamique orientaliste du tourisme sexuel nord-sud dans le film Vers le sud/Heading South de Laurent Cantet (2005). Le récit du film s’articule autour des motivations intéressées de trois bourgeoises occidentales blanches d’un certain âge qui voyagent de l’Amérique du Nord à Haïti vers la fin des années soixante-dix pour explorer leur sexualité dans le contexte de ce qu’elles perçoivent comme une île-paradis, exilées du comportement socialement codifié que l’on attend d’elles dans leurs pays d’origine. Les femmes s’offrent les plaisirs proposés par les jeunes Haïtiens noirs, souvent échangés contre de l’argent ou des biens, et engendrent des fantasmes non-réciproqués d’amour romantique avec leurs hôtes, apparemment ignorantes de la nature orientaliste d’un tel déséquilibre de pouvoir social et économique. L’article se penche sur le contexte historique de la répression politique et de la violence en Haïti sous le régime Duvalier vers la fin des années soixante-dix, aussi bien que sur les manifestations de politique spatiale représentées dans le film. De par son cadre haïtien, le film met en lumière un milieu social et culturel relativement peu familier au public occidental/du nord; toutefois, le cinéaste est conscient de l’exotisme de son sujet et de l’impossibilité de maintenir la neutralité du film dans son engagement problématique avec l’Orient/le sud. L’article soutient que la position privilégiée des protagonistes du film est reflétée non seulement dans le regard du cinéaste mais aussi dans le détachement intellectuel des spécialistes en études postcoloniales comme les auteurs de cet article, qui reconnaissent que leur traitement du sujet risque de rejouer la dynamique orientaliste qu’ils cherchent à exposer.

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Filmography

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Author details

Hammond, Charlotte

McGregor, Andrew