Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Clair Denis
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankole, Nicholas Duvauchelle, Christoph Lambert.
French director Claire Denis is the daughter of a French civil servant and she spent most of her formative years in Africa. Many of her films draw upon her memories and experiences of growing up there. Denis has made a career out of tackling difficult subject matter and often exploring the impact of colonialism on Africa. Previous films, like the semi-autobiographical Chocolat, and Beau Travail have been shaped by her innate understanding of the country’s violent past and brutal struggle for freedom from the yoke of colonialism. In Africa change doesn’t occur without a lot of bloodshed or violent upheaval.
Her latest film White Material is again set in an unnamed French colony in Africa that is undergoing a bloody rebellion and presents its own nightmarish vision of a country in turmoil. The rebellion is led by a charismatic rebel soldier known only as The Boxer (Isaach De Bankole), whose time is running out as he is being hunted by the authorities. While most of the population flees and the authorities are warning the European citizens to leave, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) remains, determined to finish the harvest of her coffee plantation.
Her only son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a drug-addicted loser who is of little help in maintaining the plantation. Her workers also abandon her, fleeing for safety, but the determined Maria hires more. When her electricity is cut, she fires up a generator. Her ex-husband Andre (the Highlander himself Christopher Lambert) urges Maria to leave before it’s too late, but his pleas fall on deaf ears. Maria is desperately trying to hold on to a world that she loves, but one that is now under threat. Around her is chaos and madness. Child soldiers are on the prowl, and helicopters drop useless survival kits.
Huppert is again magnificent, imbuing her character with a sense of vulnerability and weariness, but she also brings a fearlessness to the role. Her character here shares some traits with the central protagonist she played in the recent Home, who also struggled to cope with the breakdown of normal life around her. However, her prickly character is difficult to warm to, and audiences will find it hard to empathise with her.
Denis employs a non linear narrative structure here, and the film begins at the end with the plantation in flames and then unfolds in a series of jump cuts between flash backs and flash forwards. Denis’ films are all about mood, and she creates an atmosphere of tension and imminent violence and death here. And while she carefully downplays the depictions of violence, there are many unnerving moments. She effectively uses close ups and hand held cameras to bring a sense of urgency and frantic energy to the film, which has been beautifully shot in wide screen by cinematographer Yves Cape. The score from Tindersticks adds to the film’s chilling tone.
The title refers to material possessions owned by white people in a predominantly black country, aloof in their arrogance and sense of hubris.
Co-written with Maria N’Diaye, White Material seems to borrow themes from Joseph Conrad’s exploration of the evils of colonialism in Africa Heart Of Darkness, and is also loosely based on themes from Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass Is Singing.