White Material: Criterion Collection
April 8, 2011
Claire Denis’ White Material (2009) is set in a nameless African country on the verge of civil war. It used to be under French rule but no longer. Only a few French white colonists remain and the film focuses on Maria Vial (Huppert) who runs a coffee plantation. Writer/director Denis knows this subject matter all too well having spent the first 13 years of her life living in French West Africa. Many of her films examine the relationships between blacks and whites. This film is no different.
Maria has been repeatedly told by the French army to leave as even they are pulling out but she refuses to do so. This is her home and she’s worked too hard to leave it now, even though it may cost her her life and that of her family. She races to harvest her crops but her workers, (rightfully) fearing for their lives, leave en masse, forcing her to look for more. The conflict has taken its toll on the country’s population. We see the tired, worried and sad expressions on the faces of the people riding the bus Maria takes back to her home.
Even clergy are not exempt from the chaos that ensnarls the country as evident from a bullet-ridden body of a priest, shot and killed in his own church. Much of the insurgent forces are comprised of young boys and teenagers. They almost look like they are playing soldiers if not for their very real-looking and deadly automatic weapons that they carry like security blankets. Wounded and on the run, a popular rebel leader known as the Boxer (de Bankole) finds his way to Maria’s plantation and takes refuge there. The rest of the film plays out Maria’s futile efforts to keep her failed plantation going.
Isabelle Huppert plays a tough, resilient character, unflappable even when a gun is shoved in her face. Maria is stubborn to a fault, staying on in a country that has clearly become unstable and unsafe, especially for people like her. The actress excels at playing these kinds of characters. She delivers a gusty performance that is absolutely riveting to watch.
A pleasant surprise is the casting of Christophe Lambert as Andre, Maria’s ex-husband. For years, the actor has been relegated to direct-to-video hell, churning out an endless stream of forgettable action films and thrillers. And then, a few years ago, he had a small role in Richard Kelly’s deliriously flawed magnum opus Southland Tales (2006) and now this serious, critically-acclaimed film. He’s quite good as a man trying to save his ex-wife from herself.
White Material is a sobering reminder of just how volatile things still are in parts of Africa but one could also see it as a commentary on what’s happening in Afghanistan or Libya or other places in the world. Denis refuses to judge or sentimentalize her characters, preferring to present them flaws and all. She has painted a fascinating portrait of a country in flux, embroiled in a horrible civil war with every day people caught in the middle. Maria is the calm eye in this storm. This is a smart film that has something to say and does so in a way that assumes its audience is just as intelligent.
There are interviews with director Claire Denis and actors Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankole. Denis talks about the genesis of the project – how Huppert came to her with a novel to adapt. She also discusses her fascination with African history and politics. Huppert talks about her character and her relationship to the land. The actress explains Maria’s motivations quite eloquently. De Bankole also talks about his character and working with Denis again. He also discusses the Boxer’s mythical qualities and what he represents as a symbol to the rebels.
Also included is a deleted scene that depicts the fate of one of the main characters.
“Ecrans Noirs Film Festival, 2010” is a short film that Denis made documenting her return to Cameroon for the premiere of White Material at a film festival. She offers her impressions of what has changed since she was last there.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.