April 15, 2011
White Material (Criterion)
Not even the gnarliest horror film has left me as haunted as White Material. The 2010 film by Claire Denis, a kind of specialist in themes of French colonization and its repercussions, is the work of a director at the top of her game. You can sense the deep craft on display because the unusual, even confusingly enigmatic construction of a narrative – which relies on extremely subtle flashbacks – makes the movie somehow more compelling. It's a kind of mystery, really, and one that unfolds without a scrap of assistance from its key persona, the indefatigable Maria (Isabelle Huppert), the manager of a coffee plantation in an African country that is about to boil over into civil war. The geography isn't identified, just as Maria's relationship to the land and her family also is left for the viewer to infer. What becomes clear is that Maria is taking a last stand to defend the land that she feels an intimate sense of belonging to, even as the glue that binds her family loosens as catastrophically as the nominal sense of law and order around them.
They're an odd bunch scattered around the compound: an ex-husband (Christophe Lambert); a troubled, alienated teenage son, given complex psychological depth by Nicolas Duvauchelle; and the father-in-law, played by Michel Subor (The Intruder), who materializes as a Ghost of Colonialism Past, granting Maria the family domain even as his son takes a new African wife and fathers another son. The complex web of relationships isn't highlighted or footnoted. It just is. And the same can be said for Huppert's performance, which gives a fierce and vivid presence to Maria without overt explication of her motivations. And her motivations have to go bone-deep, since the consequences of her actions – her refusal to leave when it's still safely possible, the apolitical and humanitarian harbor she offers to the rebel leader known simply as "The Boxer" (Isaach De Bankole) – are drastic and irreversible.
Huppert's alert and athletic performance – she is, in many ways, a constantly moving target – keeps the camera mobile, the actress framed nearly always from the side or rear of her head. This suggests that the movie can't keep up with her, giving the story a kinetic crackle, but it also secures all the action from Maria's perspective. Rather than show what's going on inside her head, Denis puts the audience there, embedding us as she navigates the turmoil, whether rounding up laborers on a Quixotic bid to salvage the coffee crop or negotiating with a ragtag assortment of rebels at a roadblock.
The air of impending doom darkens as the futility of Maria's quest becomes almost absurdly apparent, and Denis encourages a debate: Is she heroic or a fool? Is there something noble in her immersion in the land or is she utterly blind to the obvious? As the restless camera settles into unexpected perches, observing the thousand little details that construct a life, as radios buzz with revolutionary rhetoric and reggae music, as the children she once joked with turn up armed with rifles, as dead bodies fill ditches and everything begins to burn, and Maria hangs on for dear life, the director's genius for atmospheric narrative fosters a consciousness – a chilling, spellbinding sense of place. Maria may be unknowable, but by the end of the film she's an astonishing vessel of empathy.
The bonus material on the Criterion Collection release isn't extravagant. But a set of video interviews with Denis, Huppert and de Bankolé help illuminate the process behind the film and supply a few insights for interpreting its meaning. There's also a deleted scene and a short documentary about Denis premiering the film at a festival in Cameroon, where it was shot.
Posted by cphillips at April 15, 2011 2:39 PM