Heading South Sweet breaststroke, dude! Get it? BREAST STROKE?

Set in Haiti in the 1970s, Laurent Cantet's Heading South (AKA Vers Le Sud) takes place at a pristine, beachside resort where middle-aged white women enjoy the sexual attention of young Haitian men (for a small fee, of course). British spinster Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), and the fragile, emotional Brenda (Karen Young) both come to Haiti to be with Legba (Ménothy César), the sexiest in the beach boy cabal. Ellen has been visiting Legba for several years, but Brenda had him first: He provided her first orgasm when he was 15 and she was 45.

The tension between Ellen and Brenda is apparent at once; poised, sophisticated Ellen tries to deny the depth of her feelings for Legba, insisting she uses him only to satisfy her sexual appetite, while Brenda openly resents Ellen's apparent control over him. Both women imagine they understand him—but when Legba is drawn into a dangerous conflict with government thugs, the extent to which Brenda and Ellen have deluded themselves becomes clear.

Much has been made of the way female sexuality is portrayed in Heading South—and it's true these women know what they want, and for the most part, what they want (pardon my French) is Haitian cock. It is not, however, a feminist film; in fact, of the many themes suggested in Heading South, the most clearly developed one is female weakness. Writer/director Cantet spends more time exploring the illusions held by Ellen and Brenda than addressing any of myriad racial, sexual, and economic questions that are inevitably raised by the film's premise. True, this narrow focus keeps the film from feeling pedantic, but it also detracts from what is a fundamentally fascinating situation: I wanted more politics and history, and less of Brenda and Ellen's (relatively uninteresting) inner lives. The film is nonetheless beautiful, whether the camera is lingering on Rampling's face, César's body, or the Haitian coastline—and in its slow, indirect way, Heading South provides an unusual perspective on the first world's relationship to the third.