French-born director Claire Denis grew up in Africa, and her latest film, White Material, is her first set on that continent since her 1988 debut Chocolat . Since ’88, Denis has become probably the greatest French filmmaker currently working, and White Material is an example of her observational, often dreamlike style at its peak.
Somewhere in Africa, a conflict between military forces and cutthroat rebel insurgents has reached its boiling point. We know little about the politics, but one goal of this attempted revolution seems to be the removal of “white material,” the white, European culture that breeds corruption and keeps workers in perpetual poverty.
Although we can’t say for sure, it seems that Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), French immigrant and manager of her family's coffee plantation, sympathizes with the rebels. Being white, in a position of power and relatively well-off, the Vials are themselves the enemy, but Maria just doesn’t see her family that way. Life back in France, the French soldiers who are now pulling out — they’re the enemy. The way Maria sees it, she’s simply put too much sweat into that plantation to be considered just another bit of white material.
From the small radios present in nearly every room, we vaguely follow the progress of the conflict. But what we mostly see is Maria, as she pleads with her staff to stay despite the increasing violence, and pays the rebels to let her cross the road so she can go hire some more.
A lone rebel soldier, known only as The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole), arrives at the plantation with a gunshot wound. Maria doesn’t really invite him to stay; she just gives him some water and turns a blind eye. Is this her indication of sympathy to his cause? A way to avoid the complications that would ensue as a result of turning him in? Simple human compassion?
Like Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, White Material wanders unobtrusively among its various characters, locations and atmospheres. And like her Friday Night , it all feels like a hazy, half-remembered dream. But this latest picture is different, in that it’s so tough to get a full of grasp on all the nerves it’s able to touch.
As portrayed by the stoic-yet-graceful Huppert, Maria is a pretty tough nut to crack. Always preoccupied and at a distance, even the few times we do get inside her head (a brief internal monologue and a snippet of a restless dream) offer little conclusive information. Nearly every other character seems to see her as being simply stubborn, but Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape present Maria to us with such care that we have to accept that her actions aren’t that simple.
But it isn’t really about solving or even puzzling over the complicated Maria, it’s about embracing the mystery and atmosphere of the film. And White Material , for all its sparse landscapes and even less crowded conversations, is a very expansive, mysterious and haunting movie.