By Lisa Schwarzbaum
January 14, 2010 at 09:27 PM EST

There’s no escaping the gnawing sadness brought on by the images of horrific destruction and misery coming out of Haiti. There is, though, brief visual respite in revisiting the intelligent, perceptive, sorrowfully angry 2005 movie Heading South. Laurent Cantet’s unnerving drama about single women who head south for sex tourism is set in a Haiti, circa 1979, that’s as politically and economically wretched as ever, a time when strongman Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his thugs terrorized the country. But at least all the little houses still stood, in a landscape of deceptive, beachy beauty.

Cantet — whose great schoolroom study The Class was one of the very best films of 2008 — establishes his uncompromising, adult-minded drama in an era in Haiti’s recent history that drove desperately poor mothers to prostitute their daughters and inspired young black Haitian men to prowl the beaches, offering themselves, and their pleasures, for purchase by visiting middle-aged white ladies, cougars before the term was a pop cultural trend. Queen bee among the hungry women is Charlotte Rampling as Ellen, a single, 55-year-old college literature professor who has staked out her territory as the wise, experienced veteran. She enjoys her proprietary relationship with a handsome 18-year-old local named Legba  (Menothy Cesar, with Rampling, left), and is none too pleased when the arrival of Brenda (Karen Young), a slightly younger, less jaded American tourist, upsets the dynamics of  Ellen’s haughty reign.

The women in Heading South only see what they want to about the troubled country whose sunshine warms their aging skin; in their competition for Legba’s attention, Ellen and Brenda think they understand their young plaything far better than they do.  In fact, the gulf between native son and tourist lady in the Haiti of Heading South is a socioeconomic chasm as big as the physical destruction we’re now witnessing, aghast, in a Haiti ripped by nature as well as by man-made misery. Make a contribution to a reputable relief organization on behalf of the Haitian earthquake disaster. And see this movie.