If there ever were a body of work that not only begged but necessitated repeated viewings, it would be the oeuvre of Claire Denis. With an output that is often thematically dense and structurally fragmented, Denis is one of the few directors going today whose films will guarantee a best-of slot in any given year. Her latest releases, “35 Shots of Rum” and “White Material,” have been some of her strongest works yet with the latter nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and opening this week through IFC Films. ‘Material’ marks the first collaboration between her and the brilliant thespian Isabelle Huppert, and we had the chance to speak to the actor and director about the film.
Huppert plays Maria Vial, a woman running a coffee plantation in an African country while a civil war rages around her. Aside from being in the middle of political unrest, she also becomes a target of both sides: the rebels attack the white colonials and the government seeks the wounded rebel leader known as The Boxer, (Isaach De Bankole with his usual enigmatic mug), whom she is secretly hiding. Of course, let’s not forget that she has to deal with a son who refuses to get out of bed and an ex-husband who is selling the farm without consulting Maria. Finally, there’s her admirable determination to complete her harvest, which not only involves her doing very rigorous work but also hiring all new workers to replace those that were either too afraid to continue or too proud to work for a white colonist in the midst of rebellion. It’s certainly a lot for both the lead and the director to juggle, but Denis weaves the various plot threads effortlessly, and the film is anchored by a commanding performance by Huppert.
The filmmaker had a lot to give to the story, pulling from personal experiences she lived through while growing up in various African colonies. Her only other feature to have the continent as a setting is her debut film “Chocolat,” making “White Material” not just a spiritual sequel or a companion piece, but a more mature, wise look at things that had ultimately shaped her as a person. Added to the mix was the Ivorian Civil War, which gave the film an overall conflict and drama to work in. Despite this specific period of time and setting, she kept the locale and moment of her story purposely general, both for respect and for safety. “We couldn’t shoot there. I thought the film was better in a country of peace, for the crew, and to have normal little children as soldiers… so they go to school, then this happens… We didn’t write ‘This takes place in Ivory Coast 2004’ because of all those that would actually recognize the areas. It would’ve been strange for me. It would’ve been fake.” By keeping things less specific, the story becomes more relatable rather than topical, and her knowledge of the life there elevates it from being too cliché. From the strong focus on the harvest work or the detailed portraits of the locale that practically swallow the characters up, the mark of an intimate love is more than apparent.
What really paved the way, though, was a chance to work with Huppert. One would wonder why they hadn’t collaborated sooner, and it seems they would both agree. “I’ve known her for years. I think we always wanted to work with each other, it was all very natural,” said Huppert. Putting a face to the character proved to kick start the creative juices for Claire. “She enabled me to imagine a situation. She gave me the freedom to dream about something, she gave me a possibility,” she explained, and not only was the deep friendship between the two felt, but also the great mutual respect.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better actress to play this character. Denis was very in-tune to Huppert’s personality, even without previous work experience, and together they’ve drawn out one of her best performances yet. At times vulnerable but always carrying a complex strength, the psychology behind the character was more physical with a facade akin to a superhero. “As Claire was writing the script, at some point she said my character was like ‘Wonder Woman.’ Of course, that’s not what it was, but that exaggeration gave me a clue of what she wanted,” Huppert recalls. “She has a physical approach to the character. I learned how to ride a motorcycle, ride the tractor… she was defined by this and the resistance to the whole situation going against her.” This particular method works wonders, as the constant attention paid to Maria on her own exhibits a strength rarely given to modern women in film, whether she’s simply laboring or struggling to manage her deteriorating business.
Denis had more in mind for the grand scheme of things, hoping to show the different perceptions and angles of her protagonist not only through her actress, but also through her camera work. “The first scene I imagined was Maria seen by the soldier in the helicopter, a very small figure lost in the plantation. So fragile, exposed. She must be as a tiny figure surrounded by the landscape, but when we are close with her, she’s working or on the motorcycle, etc. We can see that she’s tough, and that she doesn’t want to submit.” We’re usually with Maria, but the wider shots only show the limit of her power, with the surrounding environment ever prominent and much more prevailing than anything she could hope to do.
For the die-hard Denis fanatics, “White Material” may seem different than her other works: the narrative is more streamlined, the plot points are less vague, and the editing much more fluid. Even the opening of the film seems to use a trick that one wouldn’t expect from such a talent, placing the ending at the beginning. Thankfully it’s not as simple as that — we’re shown not the protagonist’s end, but first the Boxer’s followed by Maria’s son’s. After these sequences we are finally introduced to Maria, not at the start or the end of her story, but somewhere in between. It’s an odd and experimental way to open a film, and the filmmaker shares her thoughts on why it felt right to do it this way: “When we shot her in the bus I had a strange feeling that it could be the beginning of the film. It’s the only time when Maria is alone and she has no power to change things.” Before that, soldiers look through a darkened house with little light and discover the dead leader of the rebellion. “Starting with the Boxer, it was necessary to have this terrible scene in the night time as if to prepare her entrance, as if this night was preparing her to walk in the broad daylight. This little torch searching in the house, intruding into a privacy and finding the dead body was like introducing Maria, too.” Denis seemed to be going with her gut, with what felt right, and it works. Rather than feeling out of place, disconnecting, or alienating, it starts on an intriguing tone and establishes a solid pace by throwing the audience into the fray.
Many films have been made about this kind of situation, but most would focus on the rebels or the natives caught up in the war. Denis’s unique approach to the story followed someone that was not only an outsider (white French coffee harvester) but a member of society at the same time. Maria could have easily been a one-note villain, but emerges as a complex and layered character. “Claire is not talking about people who possess something, as Maria does not think that this land belongs to her, she thinks she belongs to this land. You work there, you love it, and it’s the human being destiny to create and keep these ties,” explained Huppert, which reinforces the decision to play her character in a strictly physical way. “Even though we were not doing a documentary, I knew that for these people doing it.. you have to be passionate, like the people who do wine, these little red cherries look like nothing but it’s precious for the people that grow. It’s her work, the way she says to the worker “Don’t push too hard,” etc. This is important for me. Otherwise, it’s being in Africa for nothing. It’s true, she belongs to these things, it’s hers and she’s also the lady of that place.”
Those hungry for more will have to wait for Denis to settle on another project before even humoring the thought of shooting. “I have many ideas, but I don’t know what I will do… it depends on money, on time, on a lot of things… it depends on me, too.” “The White Material” opens this Friday, November 19th through IFC Films. You can read our review of the film here.