Africa, more than any other continent, seems destined to be represented cinematically as a place filled with danger, strife, uncertainty, and upheaval. If the wild life or harsh conditions don’t get you a citizenry motivated by fear, religion, or anger most certainly will. But surely there’s joy to be found somewhere within its borders? Some pockets of happiness and smiles? Some village where something as trivial as a Coke bottle can lead to a tale of humor, warmth, and slapstick? No? Nothing?
Fine. Let’s take a look at Claire Denis’ bleak, violent, and challenging film White Material instead.
As for the white material the party’s over. No more cocktails on shaded verandas while we sweat water and blood. They’re deserting. They’re right to run scared. Our leaders are already trembling, their valises filled with booty they amassed while you were starving.”
Life in this unnamed African country has taken a turn for the worse as rebel forces, usually consisting of child warriors, combat government soldiers for power and control. Things have truly fallen apart, and the whites are no longer visibly welcome. French helicopters buzz overhead warning their citizens to leave now before they’re no longer able to. Amidst this growing chaos we’re introduced to Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a woman trying hard to get back to the coffee plantation she calls home after a fruitless search in town for workers willing to harvest her fields. She rides a packed bus, the only light skinned person aboard, and flashes back to the days leading up to this mass exodus.
Maria is the last one it seems to catch on to this new world order as she refuses to accept the reality playing out before her. The pharmacy in town is now guarded by an armed soldier, and when Maria suggests it’s a bit much the girl behind the counter corrects her that it’s actually not enough. Her ex-husband, Andre (Christopher Lambert), is maneuvering behind her back to sell the plantation to a local warlord who also happens to be the mayor. Her teenage son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is already withdrawn and antisocial, but his behavior turns more erratic and potentially dangerous after an assault by three African children. Young men she used to know as children now shake her down on the road at gunpoint. The local radio DJ calls for the end of “white material” and the end of white-minded rule. “Coffee’s coffee,” says one of the workers. “Not worth dying for.” Single minded, stubborn, and determined, Maria is blindly and willfully oblivious to it all.
Denis’ film is an unhappy tale of what happens when intentional ignorance meets the inevitable, and much like the land it’s set in the movie is a mix of the beautiful, the dangerous, and the devastating. Law and order are left to wither in the dust, and the finger of blame is pointed squarely at past oppressors and current white occupants. A soldier tells her that corruption is due to people like her paying thugs out of fear and that “because of people like you, this country is filthy.” She’s lived there much of her life and her son was born and raised there, but she will always be an eternal outsider in this land. And it’s a label that she refuses to accept.
The film’s message is clear, but it’s not helped by Denis’ editing choices. They manage to both deflate drama with premature revelations and create Kilimanjaro-sized holes in the narrative that leave the viewer without seemingly relevant information. The opening scenes show the demise of at least one major character and a late omission leaves the fate of another unexplained. These cuts and edits leave the film without emotional punches or beats, and the problem is exacerbated by Maria herself.
As a character Maria is a fascinating and original creation, but as a guide for the viewer to navigate this land with she’s frustrating and challenging. Whether consciously placing her child in danger or prettying herself up in an absurd attempt to stand apart from the madness, Maria is a cold and divisive creation. Huppert makes her a force to be reckoned with though and almost convinces the viewer that sheer will power might yet pull her through the chaos.
The anger, fear, and indifference of the people is balanced with some beautiful shots of the landscape that surrounds this hive of humanity. Images like the one above stand out as visual examples of Maria’s isolation and separateness from the world around her. The score by Stuart Staples continues the thread of uncertainty with soft, melodic sounds that occasionally become ominous.
White Material is a powerful film in fits and bursts, but it loses some of its steam through editing that leaves the experience wanting. Denis, who spent much of her life in French colonial Africa, presents a film that’s both very personal and applicable to the African experience in general. Her film and lead character challenge the viewer to see beyond the obvious choices and preferred outcome in this foreign land where acceptance is never guaranteed no matter your intention or determination.
The Upside: Beautiful cinematography; strong performance from Huppert
The Downside: Editing choices reveal too much and too little; son’s motivations are often unclear
White Material is currently playing in limited US release, but the film is also available on region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye and can be ordered here.