By Marty Mulrooney
White Material is a 2009 French film directed by Claire Denis, starring Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert. It tells the story of Maria (Huppert), a white woman in an unnamed African country who is desperately struggling to claw back control over her failing coffee plantation, amidst rising levels of danger and violence.
White Material is a story about insanity and how it festers within the minds of the lost. It is a film about racial divides, societal chasms and unbearable alienation. It is also a term used at one point by a child soldier to describe a gold lighter he finds, obviously not the property of a true African, but that of an outsider. Although she has lived there for two generations, Maria is that outsider. In her plain dress with her matted hair and simple sandals, she cuts a determined yet vulnerable figure against a vast landscape, a blot of white on an infinite canvas of dusty red. Trouble is coming.
This is a film that concerns itself less with a fast paced flowing narrative and more with a constant barrage of images that manage to say so much by actually saying so very little. There is certainly a story here, but it unravels much like real life and as a result noticeably sidesteps the tropes of a typical Hollywood production. The entire film is the memory of a dusty, downtrodden, disillusioned woman fleeing for her life, sitting on a bus full of strangers, wondering where it all went wrong.
Stepping back in time, Maria is determined not to abandon her plantation and instead stays to harvest her coffee. She is disgusted as the French soldiers flee, calling them ‘dirty’ whites. She doesn’t distinguish herself or her right to be where she is as any different from her fellow Africans. She is colour-blind to race. The plantation is practically worthless and harvesting will do little to improve things, yet she pushes forward even as her own workers abandon her. A fleeing employee asks: is it worth dying for coffee? To Maria, the question doesn’t even register: this isn’t coffee, or money, or duty. It is her integrity, her life. She has a right.
This is a film of images and sounds that combine to create very specific moods and moments. There is a tangible feeling of dread throughout and a constant desire to turn away, even though the gruesome nature of the violence in such situations as those depicted is kept to a bare minimum. Director Claire Denis successfully conveys a deep-seeded feeling of being off-kilter that proves both frustrating and refreshing. Child soldiers lurk in the background and test the water in terrifying new ways. Christopher Lambert gives a strong performance as Maria’s husband André, trying to find a way out of this nightmare before it is too late. Yet still he stays, even as the power is cut and a goat’s head turns up in a barrel of coffee beans.
Other subplots entwine beautifully and organically with the central premise. A wounded rebel officer known as ‘The Boxer’ is shown several times, not in his prime, but instead bleeding out slowly. Nicolas Duvauchelle as Maria’s son Manuel is a puzzle piece that, when it finally clicks into place, makes you want to scream. He becomes terrifyingly awe-inspiring precisely because, unlike his mother, he finds his place in the world, disgusting and wrong though it is.
White Material won’t be for everyone. It is undoubtedly far too arty and minimalistic to convey universal appeal. I would even hazard a guess that many viewers will find the entire film an exercise in tedium and walk away feeling confused, bored and disappointed. I for one wasn’t initially sure how I felt about the ending, but afterwards realised that many moments within the film will remain seared into my memory for a long time, regardless of whether I fully understood them all. There is something powerful and affecting about this snapshot of an unknown way of life that excuses the lack of consistency and makes the entire experience worthwhile. Delightfully memorable and haunting despite a lack of adherence to convention.
8 OUT OF 10
AMO’s review copy of White Material was provided on Blu-ray by Organic Marketing. Special features are as follows: the film’s trailer and a short video interview with Claire Denis and Christopher Lambert.
White Material is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.