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.
Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of White Material.