White Material: Claire Denis’ Richly Dense Film

“White Material,” Claire Denis’s new film about Africa, finds the French director at the top of her game, even surpassing previous triumphs that include last year’s well-received “35 Shots of Rum.”
The film debuted at the Cannes Film Fest in 2009 and then played as an official selection at the New York and Venice Film Festivals. IFC is releasing “White Material” in select cities this Friday, July 23.
Richly dense, “White Material” touches on many levels at once, as a sinister visual feast, as a wily narrative and character study that only reveals its true intentions in the final stretch, and as an uncompromising political statement about Africa (and the world) in this violent new century.
But it is the visuals, Denis’s strongest gift, that initially pull in and then refuse to leave us long after this film has ended. Thought set in Africa, “White Material” is decidedly not the slightly sentimental Africa of Denis’s film debut, “Chocolat” (1988), which also was a good film but not as strong as this one. Shot in tropical Cameroon, but never identified as such, “White Material” takes us into a much rougher Africa of mountains, hills, and grasses, filled with men and women on the run, gun-toting government soldiers, and child rebels.
In the first reel, Denis piles on image after startling image to rival Terrence Malick’s classic “Days of Heaven” (1978). There is an abandoned horse seen through a church window, the faint shadow of a government helicopter rushing over empty land, a lonely sandal left in the middle of a dirt road. Denis’s new Africa is a fully realized, multi-nuanced world, at once bright, beautiful, mysterious, restless, treacherous, and terrifying. As a result, it’s impossible for us look away from a horrific disaster in the making.
At the center of the tale, which is constantly in motion, is the great actress Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, a woman running a coffee plantation, Café Vial, seemingly singlehanded. The men in her family, and there are only men—her father (Michel Subor), ex-husband (Christophe Lambert), and son (Nicolas Duvauchelle)—wander around the grounds somehow dazed, never lifting a hand to help.
Her young son in particular is a sore spot for Maria. He sleeps all day, only getting out of bed when she relentlessly prods him, and has become notorious on the plantation and in the nearby town as a potentially disturbed ne’er-do-well.
Maria whirls about, trying to keep the plantation functioning as civil war encroaches and the surrounding community clearly starts to devolve into an anarchic state. She exhorts workers to stay on the plantation who only wish to flee for their safety, and she makes dangerous trips alone into town to find new workers to replace those who have already left.
While Maria’s hard work and determination might sound admirable—she even washes and dries the coffee beans herself, she represents a truly maddening character. Maria appears to be extremely oblivious to the war at her doorsteps and the gravity of her son’s state of mind. But if you know Denis’s work, there’s much more than that. Part of the film’s genius is the gradual revelation that Maria knows more about what’s going on around her than she ever lets on.
For example, when the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), an enigmatic hero of the rebels—especially the rebel children—shows up at the plantation injured, Maria seems to have no suspicions or fears, no idea of who he really is, and essentially aids him in hiding out. As the film progresses, however, we come to realize that Maria does know the Boxer’s identify and is well aware of what she has been doing in supporting him.
AS always, Denis establishes a tense mood early on and builds upon it with a string of precisely calibrated confrontations among the characters that become increasingly threatening. In one of the most unsettling sequences, which serves as a turning point for the entire film, two rebel boys enter the plantation, steal a few items, and wind up humiliating Maria’s son—stripping him and cutting locks from his hair—after he tries to chase them off the property. From that point on, there’s a descent into hell, as many more unsettling sequences follow while moving toward the film’s brutal conclusion.
The screenplay by Denis and Marie N’Diaye expertly jumps between past and present throughout. It begins essentially at the end, with government soldiers discovering the Boxer’s body in the house, and works its way back and forth, slowly filling in the gaps of the story. Though this is not a film with extended dialogue, Denis and N’Diaye make every line count, as when a rebel says of a fancy lighter taken from the plantation, “It’s just white material”—thus giving the film its title. The best line comes near the end as Maria, desperate to return to the plantation, gets a ride home from the local mayor (William Nadylam): “Your blonde hair and blue eyes are not easy for us,” he softly tells her. The Café Vial and the Vial family will never really belong in such a country.
Denis pulls together brilliantly all the various elements in “White Material.” The casting, the screenplay, the editing by Guy Lecorne, the cinematography by Yves Cape, the soundtrack by tindersticks. They all add up to an overwhelming cinematic experience, which could be described as a full assault and ferocious filmmaking.
The film’s final, haunting image leaves us wondering bout what will come out of this tragedy in Africa–like what will happen to the continent’s children—while we marvel at the power of film to shake us to the core when all aspects of the filmmaking are in sync under the masterful helm of Claire Denis.
Maria Vial – Isabelle Huppert
André Vial – Christophe Lambert
Manuel Vial – Nicolas Duvauchelle
Chérif, the mayor – William Nadylam
Henri Vial – Michel Subor
The Boxer – Isaach De Bankolé
Lucie, André’s wife – Adèle Ado
Jeep, leader of the rebel children – Ali Barkai
An IFC Films release.
Produced by Pascal Caucheteux.
Directed by Claire Denis.
Screenplay by Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye
Director of Photography, Yves Cape.
Editor, Guy Lecorne.
Music, tindersticks.
Running time: 102 Minutes.
By Jeff Farr