French filmmaker approaches African civil war from a pale perspective
White Material (2009)
Directed by Claire Denis
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert
Over the past 20 years, French filmmaker Claire Denis (Chocolate, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum) has created a résumé filled with naturalistic, character-driven dramas that play compare/contrast games between lovely, static-shot landscapes and harsh human conditions. Time and again, she finds herself returning to colonial Africa—not too surprising, as she grew up there, the daughter of French civil servant. Her latest film, White Material, is among her most involved examinations of war-torn modern Africa and the death rattle of European colonialism.
Legendary actress Isabelle Huppert (looking more and more like Denis herself) stars as Maria Vial, a Frenchwoman who runs a coffee plantation with her ex-husband somewhere in central Africa. Although the nation is never specified, the film was shot in Cameroon. With the country in the throes of a civil war, groups of ragged, disorganized rebels run around the countryside trying to overthrow the military for reasons unspecified. The French army has pulled out. Justifiably terrified by the approaching chaos, the workers at Maria’s plantation have abandoned their jobs, leaving the ripe crops unpicked. Determined to see out her harvest, Maria scours the nearby city looking for workers. Everyone she meets tells her to get out with her family. But she refuses.
The bulk of the film takes place over one 24-hour period. Denis finds moments in which to point her camera at Maria’s defeated ex-husband (Christopher Lambert), her do-nothing son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and an injured rebel leader (Isaach De Bankolé). But the film’s attention always snaps back to Maria. This micro focus provides a palpably more intimate look at personal and racial politics than would some epic, sweeping drama. But it also gives us little in the way of background or setup. Are Maria’s actions supposed to be steadfast and admirable or pigheaded and suicidal? It’s hard to tell where, exactly, Denis comes down.
Huppert gives a primal performance, her wiry, unkempt frame hurling forward like an unstoppable force of nature. But why? Why is Maria so blindly dedicated to this chunk of land? Why is she fighting to stay here against all odds? It’s made clear in the film that she doesn’t even own the land. It’s the property of her former father-in-law. She’s merely the supervisor, sticking around (we assume) because of her son. And yet, she seems blithely unconcerned when her son goes Taxi Driver crazy, shaving his head and running off with a shotgun. Maria’s sole focus seems to be preserving the coffee harvest—a goal most supporting characters indicate is pointless. Who’s going to buy coffee with a war going on? People point guns at her, bodies stack up on the roadside; and yet Maria remains undeterred. A stone pillar in a full-force hurricane.
White Material is undeniably taut. The fragmented, catch-as-catch-can story builds upon a growing sense of mortal danger. The camera, constantly prowling behind the eternally in-motion Maria, feels like a stalker. The wheezing soundtrack suggests an orchestra forever tuning up to play something ominous.
With White Material, Denis offers no nostalgia for the faux colonial paradise of her youth. This is a confused, chaotic, modern world in which 10-year-old soldiers tote machine guns. There are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys here. Still, Denis raises some thorny questions. Is Africa more or less stable with a strong guiding hand? Many Europeans are second- and even third-generation African-born. Do they have any claim to the countries, businesses and homes they helped build there? If the writer-director has opinions one way or the other, she keeps them to herself.
Perhaps because of the film’s unspoken nature, White Material is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Americans don’t have a very powerful connection to colonial politics, and this film doesn’t spell them out very clearly. Viewers who are happy to have talking points presented so they can discuss issues in depth afterward will have plenty to chew on here. Still, strong as she is, it’s hard to root for Huppert’s character through her layers of self-delusion. She, like the film she occupies, seems to be composed of all sinew and no muscle.