Early in Claire Denis’s powerful, agonized film “White Material,” you see a woman in a short pink dress, Maria — played by a sublime Isabelle Huppert — hanging off the back of a bus. The setting is a contemporary unnamed African country being torn to pieces by government troops, marauding rebels and the enduring ravages of European colonialism. As she holds on tight, her short-sleeved dress fluttering, the camera moves in close enough for you to see the muscles in Ms. Huppert’s thin arms popping, straining with the terrific effort that encapsulates the will to survive.
Ms. Denis has an extraordinary gift for finding the perfect image that expresses her ideas, the cinematic equivalent of what Flaubert called le mot juste. At her best, as in “Beau Travail” (1999), her radiant retelling of Melville’s “Billy Budd,” the images convey her ideas with more precision than reams of scripted dialogue could. The same holds true of “White Material,” a striking film filled with images that sometimes reveal their full meaning only when their beauty curdles in the chain of signification, as in the seemingly inconsequential shot of Maria’s light hair that inexorably leads to a scene of a man shaving his head and violently stuffing his blond hair into the mouth of a protesting black woman.
But before that horror there is the nightmarish image of running dogs and the unnerving scene of a man caught in an inferno, an opening vision to which the film later returns. When Maria first enters the film, she’s walking in a dusty rural landscape and vainly trying to wave down a fast-moving car. The expression on her face is both terrifying and terrified, and her features look harshly arranged — lips pursed into a lopsided oval, brow bunched, red-lined eyes fixed — as if she had been broken by some unspoken anguish and hastily glued together. Soon after, she hitches a ride on the bus and begins her journey toward the coffee plantation she calls home, a passage Ms. Denis interweaves with flashbacks to the recent past.
It takes a little time to adjust to this dual movement forward (toward home) and back (into the past), if only because it makes it tricky to get a firm footing in the story. Yet this form works because Maria initially appears as unmoored by what is happening as you are. In this sense, the flashbacks, most of which are from her point of view, serve as fragments of a puzzle that you slowly piece together, at least in part. You discover her fierce dedication to the plantation, and you become acquainted with her former husband, André (Christophe Lambert); her adored grown son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle); and the plantation patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor). In time, both you and Maria learn the costs of her ferocious loves.
The price proves lethally high. In some crucial respects, “White Material” is a specific film about white Europeans who, being fully integrated into their African home, insist on the privileges of patrimony, including the right to exploit the land and its people. Though pale as milk, Maria contemptuously refers to “dirty whites,” and her son, now perhaps in his early 20s, was born in Africa. Yet while he is a native son, the country “doesn’t like him,” as an African man tells Maria, and neither does it like her. If she doesn’t seem to grasp this, it’s because she seems to think that her deep, rapturous feeling for the country on which she’s staked a claim is enough to inoculate her. She isn’t a dirty white, though for some she is.
“White Material” is very much a companion piece to “Chocolat,” Ms. Denis’s 1988 directorial debut. That lush, more straightforward film is set in Cameroon in the 1950s, during the waning years of French colonial rule, a subject Ms. Denis, the daughter of a French official, knows intimately, having grown up in Francophone African countries. “Chocolat” centers on the relationship between the young white daughter of a French district officer and the African man, Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), who works as the family’s house “boy.” Ms. Denis doesn’t pretend to speak for the African servant, who remains opaque, but she does insist on showing his point of view — we watch him watching the whites — because she knows that this story isn’t hers alone.
Mr. De Bankolé has a small role in the new film as a wounded, romanticized rebel soldier called the Boxer who takes refuge at the coffee plantation. Maria offers him help, but she barely talks to him, so preoccupied is she with getting her crop of beans harvested. Most of the plantation’s workers have understandably fled (and Maria’s ex wants to do the same), and both the army and the rebels, including a ragtag band of child soldiers, are fast approaching from different angles. The utopian promise of African liberation that reverberated throughout “Chocolat” has been replaced by the devastations of postcolonialism. Power has partly moved from white hands to black, yet much remains the same, including terror.
For the most part, terror creeps through this film quietly, sneaking through tall grass, slipping into buildings and moving with increasing tension among the characters. Eventually, Ms. Denis brings the whole thing to a shocking end with a death blow that is as blunt in its execution as it is in its larger historical meaning. But before then, she shows you an image of such astonishing poignancy and moral clarity that it will haunt you long after the film ends: a handful of child soldiers sleeping in a rumpled bed among scattered stuffed animals. With grave tenderness, Ms. Denis reminds us that these murderous, tragically lost boys and girls are still children, a gesture that doesn’t restore their humanity — which she has no right to restore — so much as remind you of the humanity that’s so easily forgotten.
Claire Denis has always been a poet of mood and moment, and here succeeds in linking these skills to the creation of a story with oppressive tension and atmosphere. White Material could be her best film since Beau Travail: a disturbing piece of work whose power and grip increase, almost imperceptibly, as the film progresses to its awful and inevitable conclusion. Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, a coffee farmer in an unnamed African state – Francophone, and presumably a former French colony – which is in meltdown. There is lawlessness on the streets and, as in Rwanda, radio DJs pour out inflammatory broadcasts. The colonial whites are being blamed. Every day is more dangerous for Maria, but she stubbornly refuses to leave, perhaps because she cannot imagine a life back in France, perhaps because decades of facing down quasi-insurrectionary threats from the indigenous workforce have left her unable to distinguish this grave crisis from all the other temporary mutinies.
With a bold disregard for traditional Hollywood-screenplay templates, Denis leaves it until quite late in the movie before introducing the other people in Maria’s life: her ravaged and leonine husband André – an intriguing performance from Christopher Lambert – and her son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Feckless Manuel is the imperious Maria’s Achilles heel. So effortlessly authoritative and demanding in every other area of her life, Maria cannot control Manuel, who lies around in bed all day; he declines to help with the plantation and Maria cannot bring herself to order him.
Denis intuits Maria’s barricaded, siege mentality. Like her, we feel, rather than clearly learn, that she, her family and her business have become a terrifyingly visible hate-focus. Their possessions are the legitimate spoils of revolutionary war – “white material” – and they themselves are “white material” also. This is especially since a rebel called Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) is hiding out in their compound, giving the soldiers a pretext for violent action, and Bankolé’s peripheral presence is as mysterious and oblique as everything else in the movie. The danger is like an ambient presence or temperature, a background crackle which gets progressively louder and louder. There are no conventionally tense, heart-pumping moments and, actually, no really explicit violence. Yet by the end the movie overflows with adrenaline and fear.
Finally, it is Manuel who expresses the insupportable anxiety that André and Maria more or less have under control. He shaves his head and goes Awol with his father’s rifle, and this flourish of madness, raging in the burning sun as the plantation begins to collapse like an enfeebled government or royal household, gives the story a dramatic shape like something by Edward Bond, an adapter of Shakespeare as well as the screenwriter for Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.
White Material does not behave like a “thriller”, nor like the traditional hand-wringing, breast-beating movie about Africa, and yet it as lapel-graspingly urgent as either, a movie that remains in the mind long after it has finished.
Country: France / Production year: 2009 / Cast: Christophe Lambert, Isaach de Bankole, Isabelle Huppert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam
Claire Denis: Director Claire Denis was raised in colonial Africa, a location she seems driven to revisit in film every decade – previously with Chocolat (1988) and Beau Travail (1999). The continent made such a formative impression on her that it informs most of her work: her films about the lives of the displaced, expats and immigrants are drawn directly and indirectly from this history. Denis always has something different to say about the place, taking advantage of personal changes, as well as those that alter Africa, for her inspiration. Pale and frail-looking Isabelle Huppert, looking slightly out of place in the beautiful, baking scenery, plays a woman trying to run a coffee plantation she doesn’t even properly own, while around her the unnamed African country she lives in undergoes a bloody revolution. The whites are fleeing, the workers are deserting, the colonial party is over – and the guests are being forcibly ejected. All Huppert can do is keep the crop coming, maintaining a status quo that was always illusory – her family has already collapsed long before the revolution. With gun-toting children roaming the hills, there’s an ever-present tension and threat permeating the atmosphere here. It’s a film about fear of change and of chaos; Huppert’s character isn’t easy to like or admire, but as she scrambles around with increasing desperation while her world comes falling down around her, she’s easy to identify with.