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28639: Craig (article) NYT: Heading South (fwd)
From: Dan Craig
July 16, 2006
Libidos of a Certain Age
By ELIZABETH HAYT
WHILE teenagers bought popcorn by the ton on their way into
“Pirates of the Caribbean’’ last week, and fashion
addicts clawed into “The Devil Wears Prada,’’ a
different crowd lined up for a movie playing at two Manhattan art houses:
“Heading South,’’ about older single women visiting
1970’s Haiti in a female version of sex tourism.
The women in the film, in their late 40’s and 50’s, are
spending a vacation at a resort where impoverished local beach boys serve
as holiday gigolos. The teenagers devote themselves to nourishing the
women’s starved libidos in exchange for food, gifts and temporary
refuge from the perils of the island’s repressive regime.
A rave review by Stephen Holden in The New York Times called the movie
“one of the most truthful examinations ever filmed of desire, age
and youth.’’ Since it opened July 7, theaters have been
packed with women about the same age as the ones on the screen. Some
bought tickets in groups for a kind of middle-aged girls’ night
out. Interviews indicated the movie has hit home with this audience
because it affirms the sexual reality of women of a certain age, that
even as they pass the prime of their desirability to men, libidos
smolder. More than a few said they came seeking a hot night out.
“The whole notion of women’s sexuality fading away has
disappeared,’’ said Marjorie Solovay, 63, a retired
schoolteacher in Manhattan, after seeing “Heading
South’’ on Wednesday. “Women’s sexuality carries
The next night a retired 62-year-old said: “Two friends of mine saw
it over the weekend and said it is a must-see. They’re 60 and 72.
It’s interesting that women feel they’re able to relate to
it. So many movies are youth-oriented.’’
The film takes a hard look at the dearth of appropriate sexual partners
for women like Ellen, its lead character, played by Charlotte Rampling, a
single 55-year-old professor of French literature at Wellesley. Ellen
says, “If you’re over 40 and not as dumb as a fashion model,
the only guys who are interested are natural born losers or husbands
whose wives are cheating on them.’’
Instead of passively drifting into a future of unwilled celibacy,
however, Ellen and the other American women seek satisfaction in exotic
places. A few viewers were put off by such desperate measures - with
their implication of the exploitation of the black Haitian teenagers -
and by the neediness of the women. But others supported the film’s
message that a woman has a right to seek pleasure where she can find it.
“Single older women need to find a place to have sex,’’
said one filmgoer in her late 50’s who lives on the East Side but
did not want to give her name. “If you’re at this point in
your life, and you have needs, and you can make yourself feel good or
whole, go for it, so long as you don’t hurt anyone.’’
In its first week on two screens in New York (it will open in other
cities this summer), the movie has earned $56,000. Managers at the two
theaters - Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on the Upper West Side and the Angelika
in SoHo - said it is their highest grossing current film.
Ms. Rampling, who at 60 is still a woman of erotic allure, said by phone:
“There’s an awful lot of pressure around the idea of a woman
growing older and therefore losing that potential of being desirable, and
that puts women into a situation where they feel almost embarrassed about
the fact they don’t have the kind of bodies that young women have,
or they don’t have the kind of sexual attraction that seems to go
with a younger stage of their life.
“What does that mean, the fact that you’re older? It means
that you’re not going to have the same kind of relationships you
had when you were younger. I think we have to reinvent from a
woman’s point of view another way of being.’’
Society often seems of two minds when it comes to older women and sex, in
the view of the author Jane Juska, 73. Six years ago she placed a
personal ad in The New York Review of Books stating her desire “to
have a lot of sex with a man I like’’ and wrote a book,
“A Round-Heeled Woman,’’ about what happened when the
replies came in.
Ms. Juska, who had not seen “Heading South,’’ recalled
by phone that she found a lot of support from people who read her book,
but that criticism often sounded a lot like pity. “Opposition came
in the form of, ‘I feel so sorry for you that you have to do
this,’ ’’ she said.
The women in the movie, far from home, feel free to indulge in a hedonism
without judgment, a liberation that some in the audience who have
traveled on their own identified with. “When women travel abroad,
they shed a lot of inhibitions and behave in ways they don’t behave
at home,’’ said Bunny Goldstein, 62, a retired music teacher
who saw the movie. “They live out of context.’’
Ms. Rampling’s character is comfortable in her own skin and seems
unaware of her age by the side of her lover, a black teenager named Legba
(Menothy Cesar). When the two frolic in the ocean, she dips her head
beneath the water, lifting her wrinkled face to the sun. Legba tells her
that her slicked-back wet hair makes her look old and chickenlike. Ellen
doesn’t care. She laughs.
The film at first celebrates Ellen as a “cougar,’’ an
older woman who sexually preys upon a younger man. “Here the cute
guys are a dime a dozen,’’ she says to one of the other women
in the movie.
But beneath the protagonist’s sexual cynicism lie tender cravings.
When Ellen discovers Legba is in trouble with the police, she begs him to
let her be his protector. Although she had the upper hand at first, he is
the one to reject her, leaving her bereft of intimacy and the flattery
and companionship she couldn’t admit he provided.
By revealing the emotional tug between the characters, the movie
ultimately disavows its premise that women can enjoy sex without love.
Audience members who bought tickets expecting an erotic romp were
surprised as the movie became a layered exploration of class, race,
romantic complexity and the Haitian politics of the Jean-Claude Duvalier
Some were pleased with this direction. “I had read a review of it
and went in there thinking the movie was about lonely women looking for
love,’’ said Ruth Eisenberg , an owner of a real estate
company in her late 50’s. “I’m newly widowed. I found
it interesting and touching. They were all emotionally affected and
connected. They were feeling women and feeling men. It wasn’t blind
anonymous sex. I really liked it.’’
Others were disappointed. “I was really in the mood for something
hot,’’ said Ms. Goldstein, the music teacher. “This
disappointed me. I thought there’d be more sex.’’
Paula Schwartz contributed reporting for this article.