LITTLE ROCK Claire Denis’ White Material is an unsettling, harrowing look at the self-delusion of a colonialist who’s convinced that she has become fully integrated into the country - and the family - she’s occupied. It’s Denis’ strongest movie at least since her re-imagining of Melville’s Billy Budd, Beau Travail, in 1999, and it’s got something of the ineffable power of (transgressive) impressionistic art. While there’s not really anyone to align yourself with in this brutal fugue of alternating beautiful and terrifying images, it feels vital and urgent.
Denis is a highly visual director whose method is to capture freighted moments when fragile illusion is juxtaposed against crushing reality. And so we catch a glimpse of Isabelle Huppert, determined and tiny, her pink dress rattling as she clings to the back of a bus too full to accommodate her with a seat. Is it ironic that the bus is full of black people, that it is thrum-ming through an unnamed African country that’s rent by revolution? That the radio is urging citizens to attack the remaining emblems of colonialism?
The structure of White Material is chronologically fractured, but the action occurs over a relative short period of time, perhaps an especially eventful day. The rebels, mostly undisciplined child soldiers, have gained a foothold in the region but the government troops who are on their way are no more sympathetic to the “dirty whites” who remain than the revolutionaries. The French military presence is pulling out, and strongly suggesting that it’s time for the remaining French nationals to do the same.
We eventually learn that Huppert’s character is named Maria, and that she’s the manager of a coffee plantation owned by her estranged (or ex-) husband’s family. The duplicitous husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) is still around, and the father of Maria’s son, the shiftless twenty something Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle), as well as Jose (Daniel Tchangang), the pre-adolescent son of one of the plantation’s black workers. He’s trying to cut a deal with the corrupt mayor, to whom he’s already deeply indebted, hoping to trade his land for safe passage out of the country.
Soaking in his tub, and dying slowly, is Andre’s father (Denis favorite Michael Subor), more a symbol of imperial hubris than a functional character. Denuded of power, he stumbles around the plantation in his bathrobe.
Still, though the plantation is pointedly not Maria’s, she is determined to bring in the harvest, even after her most faithful workers have left. She recruits some unreliable workers, who will ultimately desert her as well. A wounded rebel officer, a semi-legendary figure called The Boxer (Isaach De Bankole), finds his way to the plantation and Maria hides him, though she barely pays him any attention, so distracted is she by what she sees as necessary work.
We never actually achieve empathy with Maria but we understand that she is not hanging on because she has nowhere else to go or because she can’t imagine abandoning her property. She stays because she feels aligned with the country, a full African rather than merely “white material.”
Denis, who grew up in the French African colonies of Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon (where White Material was filmed), has a strong grasp on the inherent Otherness of Maria’s predicament, and her refusal to anchor the movie in a specific time or place lends it an alarming universality. Maria may have gone native, but the natives still read her whiteness as foreign. And material.
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/07/2011
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