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by Michael Koresky
September 15, 2009 1:06 AM
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REVIEW | Running Scared: Claire Denis's "White Material"

A scene from Claire Denis' "White Material." Image courtesy of TIFF.

At one point in Claire Denis's ravaging new film, "White Material," Isabelle Huppert's Maria, a coffee plantation owner in an African country increasingly torn apart by escalating civil war violence, is driving her grown son, Manuel, on a tractor to bring him medical attention for a minor injury to his foot. Since she has been warned time and again to evacuate for her and her family's safety, along with the few other French nationals who remain there, she must constantly defend her decision to stay, yet now as she drives on, the rickety machine's motor drowns out her words. She tells Manuel that there is nothing to worry about, that reports of strife have been exaggerated, and that they cannot give in, yet soon we cannot hear her at all. It's not just her white pride of ownership that causes such surety, but also her increasingly deranged hubris, one cultivated over years of embodying superiority in a place she has wrongly deemed her own.

Of course, postcolonial critiques are not wholly unexpected in French art filmmaking, and neither are dramatizations of war-torn Africa from white perspectives uncommon. Yet with Claire Denis at the helm, this is hardly the same old story. While less abstract than many of her other works, "White Material" is similarly open-ended and purely experiential, and its way of playing with viewer identification with its protagonist is reminiscent of such works as "L'Intrus" and "I Can't Sleep." In this case, one might assume initially that the film's strong Caucasian female lead is in some ways a surrogate both for its implicitly white audience and its, well, strong Caucasian female filmmaker. The growing disconnect we feel to the irrational, stubborn Maria, however, makes "White Material" a frustrating and illuminating experience.

Yet Maria is no white devil, and the Africans surrounding her are neither savages nor victims. She evidently views herself both as a special case and just one of the common folk, and her double self-identification as insider and outsider is her downfall. Her refusal to leave, and to keep her coffee plantation in operation (the coffee's value will increase, she frantically insists) naturally requires assistance, and she summons remaining villagers to work for her, none of whose fears she seems willing or equipped to assuage.

If this description makes the film seem like a character study, of course Denis approaches it in her usually unconventional way. The narrative is told prismatically, so that we're constantly shifting in time, watching small events unfold both before and after the town explodes into chaos, and all we have to chart our course are her changes of clothes from gingham to linen. At the start of the film, we are thrust into a motion that will never let up (this is probably the closest Denis has ever come to an action film), with Huppert desperate to hail a ride from a dusty street in the middle of nowhere; whether she's trying hysterically to get out or to get back home is initially unclear and remains one of the film's lingering queries.

What right does she have to be there? This might be the essential question of "White Material," yet Maria is hardly the film's only character. Christophe Lambert gives a surprisingly fragile performance as her ex-husband, while Nicolas Duvauchelle is downright frightening as the beautiful, blond, lazy Manuel, who descends to peculiar pathological depths and thrusts himself into unexpected action. Meanwhile Isaach de Bankole's elusive rebel fighter the Boxer's sudden presence in Maria's shed, injured, contributes to a blindsiding climactic bit of reckoning. "White Material" has a hectic power, fueled by constant unease, captured by Yves Cape's intense roving camerawork, culminating in a provocative ending that turns the entire film's portrait of racial and familial dynamics on its ear.

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4 Comments

  • David C | January 16, 2011 3:23 AMReply

    @Rational American,

    Put away the "clash of civilisations" paranoia, hysteria and deranged generalisations and do try to think in a logical and calm manner.

    cos' your present logic implies that you had better start shooting "The Left" before we shoot you, huh?

    The word "rational" really has become Orwellian.

  • In Defense | January 1, 2011 7:25 AMReply

    Did the Africans find the French harmless, an intrinsic part of their community even when born there? Nope. We are told at the first checkpoint and for a very good reason that the Africans found the French to be at the very root of their problem: white devils bringing a whole lot of theft and senseless killing. (Listen closely to the revolutionary radio announcer, he says some uncomfortable things to any good capitalist regarding that idea which won't go away ...exploitation.)

    But the above "Rational American" can't see it because exploitation is oh so nicely assisted and implemented across the continent (to this day) through the collusion and corruption of many an African government. It seems that it only becomes senseless and the violence uncivilized when the killing is done by children wielding machetes. When children, and we can include Maria's son in all of this go haywire, (some mother she) there is simply no recourse than to do them one better. When the jig was up for our coffee producer, Maria manages to do them all one better.

    And with Maria's final act, it seems that the right can join the left in carnage.

    Oh, "Rational American" forgot to mention Hitler, Pinochet, Franco, etc. Carnage and slaughter are not exclusive to any one political side, but more likely the arena of people who too easily and too rigidly tell the other to "go to hell."

  • Another American | December 7, 2010 7:35 AMReply

    That's rational, all right!

  • Rational American | December 4, 2010 6:55 AMReply

    How can you excuse theft and murder of innocent people? Because they are white and "don't have the right to be there?" You sound like a racist bigot to me. Do Jews "not belong" in America? Is it ok to kill imigrants because they have "wrongly deemed this land thier own?" as you claim she has. Theft and senseless killing is always unjustified.... I guess except in the paralyzingly guilty minds of confused liberals like yourself. You learned nothing from the film. You who excuse senseless violence, wish it on yourself. The left marches civilization toward the gallows, and with each step proclaims how noble the looters and killers are and how undeserving and greedy the producers are. You are the scourge of human history. You propped up every meglomonical mass murderer of the past century. Lenin,Stalin, Mao, pol pot, Che, Castro, Chavez. Your death toll is 100million and counting.. Go to hell.