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Claire Denis's 2009 White Material takes as its subject the owner of a coffee plantation somewhere in a former French colony on the West coast of Africa, now in the throes of a civil war. Government troops skirmish with a rebel army made up mainly of underage irregulars, orphans with machine guns who don't care who gets killed. That prescription for chaos automatically threatens violence against the few French holdouts in the region -- the "white material" that one boy rebel says, "Isn't going to be around much longer."
The story concentrates on Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) and the Vial farm, which has stayed in place for generations, surviving the liberation from France and weathering various political upheavals. An ongoing civil war has heated up in the locality, because a rebel leader named The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) is rumored to be in hiding. The unprofitable Vial plantation owes too much money to the local mayor, Chérif (William Nadylam). Departing French peacekeepers address Maria from a helicopter, begging her to flee the fighting. Maria responds with an obscene gesture -- she is in stubborn denial of the situation and can think only of getting her coffee harvested and processed. Maria's family is also in disarray. The old man of the house (Michel Subor of Topaz) is bedridden and helpless. Maria's worthless, tattooed son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) stays in bed all day. Unable to get his former wife to listen to reason, André (Christophe Lambert of Mortal Kombat) is trying desperately to find a buyer so they can flee. But the mayor is only waiting to take possession of the plantation. Only Maria works the plantation. She hires more help when her own workers flee, and tries to keep the house staff from leaving. Robbed and almost killed by two rebels barely in their teens, Manuel flips out, shaves his head and sets off on his motorbike, possibly thinking he can join the rebellion. Maria resolves to tough out whatever comes, even though she's forced to pay a fortune at a roadblock by rebel bandits that she knows by name. As the wave of killing moves into the local town, Maria finds The Boxer hiding in one of her coffee sheds, wounded. She calmly elects to hide him and care for him.
Some of the critical complaints I've read about Denis's picture miss its point. White Material isn't a complex action thriller about a fight for survival. It's also not a socially conscious "tell the world" piece about a mass atrocity, as covered by a film like Hotel Rwanda, which courts a mainstream audience. The fighting shown in the movie is not a mass genocide, but the random barbarity that can break out when the future of any disputed country is up for grabs. Comparisons to Conrad's Heart of Darkness aren't useful either. The story doesn't dig deeply into colonial history or burden its French holdouts with an anti-colonial message. Denis instead stays a neutral observer and lets relationships and attitudes speak for themselves.
Claire Denis gives us a first-person narrative from inside a civil war. Except for some scenes with the rebels, and others with André, we're stuck with what Maria knows and sees. Convinced against all reason that the troubles will blow over, Maria redoubles her efforts to harvest her coffee and take care of a family that has lost all sense of unity. She bargains hard and tough for what she needs, and keeps making progress through sheer will. Maria simply refuses to acknowledge the reality around her. Rule #1 is to hang on to her way of life -- even when everybody around her is bailing.
Maria responds to the pressure by pulling in her emotional feelers and closing her ears to information that conflicts with her set views. Thus she doesn't respond to what are often very honest attempts to do her good. The security men in the 'copter only have her survival in mind. Her workers, her housekeeper, the cook all tell her that it's high time to get out. The pharmacists in town suddenly want cash payments, and even the school where she picks up the cook's son is distrustful of her. Maria must walk on her own down dirt roads, where a passing car might carry casual killers, and the trees could hide renegade soldiers such as the ones that rob and humiliate Manuel, pushing him over the edge. Maria takes denial to ridiculous extremes. A rebel DJ on the radio predicts a white massacre, and when the 'friendly' government troops drag him away, the loyalist radio announcer reports that The Boxer is said to be hiding on a white-owned plantation. Maria waves off this alarming information: "You just can't take the radio reports seriously."
As the Vial plantation edges toward a bloodbath, White Material takes time out to follow a group of rebel scavengers. Disorganized and unpredictable, these children with guns are led by an only slightly older teenager, who idolizes the great hero The Boxer. The first thing Manuel does is lead them back to the Vial farm so they can see The Boxer. He then opens the larder and the kids gorge themselves on junk food and candy. It's like a lethal Children's Crusade. The kids sack out surrounded by Manuel's baby toys, and suddenly look their proper age.
I suspect that viewers dissatisfied with the film's ending simply expect White Material to build to a typical action climax. Claire Denis structures the film with flashbacks and flash-forwards that are unusually clear, but she's not interested in violence for its own sake. There's a bloodbath all right, beginning with some disturbing throat-slittings. The killings are brutal, and we see their effects, but they're not presented as action scenes. Maria arrives late and must finally confront what was to everyone else an obvious outcome. Her own reaction is violent as well.
I respond positively to White Material because it reminds me of my own reactions when threatened with a breakdown of law and order. It's sort of a crawling, low-grade panic, a numbness at the thought of real jeopardy, or the loss of control over one's fate. 1 The movie is also an interesting contrast to the British films of the 1950s and '60s about Mau-Mau uprisings and the like, that generally take a position of outrage when the veddy proper colonial representatives in their African mansions find themselves under attack by vindictive, opportunistic blacks with machetes. Stubborn, unrealistic holdouts like Maria Vial are like Californian hill dwellers unprepared for horrendous fires, people that refuse to evacuate before the brushy hills around them explode in flames. History will mow you down just as efficiently as fire will. Maria flies no French flag over her property. She simply wants to keep growing coffee, even though her ex- husband and son have given up and their presence in the district is barely tolerated, even in peaceful times.
Claire Denis made White Material with a small crew, shooting exteriors for weeks in natural light only. The camerawork generally places Ms. Huppert in wide master shots, or reflects the growing instability with slightly too-tight, handheld work. Almost every scene has an understated tension. Maria's stop off at the school is a good example: why is the administrator so unconcerned, and the teachers so suspicious? We're aware that Maria and the little boy have a long way to walk to get back to her truck. Will the workers in the truck still be there? Will troops or guerillas have arrived? The apathetic son Manuel takes a quick swim in the plantation's pool, not realizing that two renegade child soldiers are preparing to spear him like a frog. Much later, Maria is held at gunpoint by her own former workers and neighbors. She sees a boy wearing one of her dresses, and a hostile girl is wearing her silver butterfly necklace. Is she about to be executed? Even Maria can't ignore the problem now.
The performances are purposely reduced to behaviors -- nobody "acts" to layer emotions or motivations behind their words. Isabelle Huppert's Maria is clearly putting on a tough front for everybody. She doesn't respect her ex- husband and refuses to judge her son in any realistic way. When she feeds the wounded Boxer, her motions are tender but she offers no show of charity or sweetness -- she's doing what she feels is right, not what will save her plantation.
We know Christophe (Christopher) Lambert from Michael Cimino's The Sicilian and a lot of martial arts pictures; it's interesting to see him in the role of a man unprepared for trouble, adrift in a family that simply doesn't cohere. Nicolas Duvauchelle remains an almost unknown factor: we don't realize that his Manuel has serious adjustment problems until he shaves his head, threatens a woman at home, and runs off in a destructive bid to get involved with the rebels. There is madness in the Vial family, even if no individual is crazy in any specific way. Some viewers may want more traditional "drama" but Ms. Denis has opted to keep the theatrics of White Material at a disturbing arm's length.
Criterion's Blu-ray of White Material is a stunning HD encoding of this 2009 feature filmed in Super 35. Stuart Staples' music score underscores the menace of the film with delicate tones, never cueing our reactions or adding shock effects. Criterion's extras are modest but effective. Claire Denis and her stars Isabelle Huppert and Isaach De Bankolé appear in new interviews. Denis's first film Chocolat was about a French girl growing up in Africa and falling in love with an African man, also played by Isaach De Bankolé. We learn that Huppert wore no makeup in the show. When Marie puts on some lipstick near the end, the effect is quite chilling -- it's as if Maria subconsciously knows she's going to die, and wants to look good out of pride, like Antoinette going to the guillotine.
Denis's docu on the film's premiere in Cameroon where it was filmed is covered through the director's own video camera, showing the venue for a pan-African film festival. A deleted scene adds a bit of clarity to the final slaughter, but Denis apparently didn't want to spell out what happens to everybody. A trailer is included as well. Like most foreign films, White Material received a very limited release in the States, barely registering on box office reports. Had it gained more visibility as a critical hit, they'd probably be remaking it in English, with American stars.
The insert booklet contains an essay by Amy Taubin that examines Claire Denis's unique perspective on Africa and White Material's very different approach to her other Africa- set feature films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
White Material Blu-ray rates:
1. No, I've never been in any situation anywhere near comparable to that of the movie, but the experience of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots was ... formative. One minute the radio news is doing its usual thing of ignoring trouble (gotta keep those commercials coming), and then my supervisor tells me that I might want to go home -- shooting and looting is warming up on Western Ave. On the way home other drivers seem aware that things are different; they're more careful and courteous. But some kids stand in the middle of Venice Blvd. and throw rocks at my car. At home I see smoke in the air only a mile or so away -- in two different directions. I meet my school-age kids coming home on the bus and spend the afternoon monitoring the TV news and checking the view from the upstairs windows. I've seen no police all day, not anywhere. The neighbors have locked their doors and are likewise hunkered down. I don't want to scare anybody at home, so I put on a poker face and keep moving and thinking. What if this happens, and what if that happens? You wish you knew what was going on, on the next street over.
I got hints of the same feeling watching White Material. Fresh from seeing dead bodies in town, Isabelle Huppert is stuck on a bus heading in the wrong direction, or walking down a road and not knowing what's happening ahead at home. The sense of unease builds, and you think -- Am I making too big deal of this, or am I not taking it seriously enough?
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T'was Ever Thus.