Sunday 11 July 2010

White Material (2009)

“The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you really had,” mused Tilda Swinton’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). A few months ago I dreamt that I was watching Claire Denis’s latest film White Material (2009), despite never having seen a clip from it and having read only a few basic plot details. This seemed appropriate, in a way. Enigmatic, fragmentary and sometimes disorientating, Denis’s cinema often has the cryptic quality of a dream. (And, yes, watching the film last week, some of its images did seem strangely familiar …)

Structurally, as it turns out, White Material isn’t one of Denis’s most elusive or daring works. Following a brilliantly unsettling opening sequence, the film unfolds in relatively straightforward flashback as it recounts the refusal of a Frenchwoman, Maria Duval (Isabelle Huppert), to leave her African coffee plantation as a civil war between militia and rebels erupts around her. Returning to the continent after her debut film Chocolat (1988) and 1999's Beau Travail, Denis has produced in White Material a complex, haunting meditation on war and race - a humanly-scaled epic that extends and complements the concerns of her earlier work.

Denis’s films have been characterised by a creative approach to their intertexts - Melville’s Billy Budd in Beau Travail, Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) in 35 Shots of Rum (2009) - and White Material (which she co-wrote with the novelist Marie Ndiaye and shot in Cameroon) was originally inspired by Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass Is Singing (1950), which is set in pre-Apartheid South Africa. The film doesn’t specify its precise location or its time period, but the context here is clearly contemporary; while you can argue with the movie's construction of a thoroughly generalised “Africa,” Denis and Ndiaye certainly succeed in evoking a range of post-colonial war-zones. (As an oblique yet visceral portrait of conflict on this continent, the film makes Moira Buffini’s recently-opened play Welcome to Thebes, for all its undoubted strengths, seem gimmicky and cartoon-ish.) There are echoes, too, of Rithy Panh’s recent The Sea Wall (2008), which featured Huppert in a colonial context (1930s Indochina); some of the scenes between Maria and the workers on her plantation are reminiscent of sequences in that film.

But White Material is a much stronger, more assured film than The Sea Wall, and Huppert gives a much more committed and involving performance in it; one of her finest, I’d say. Her compelling presentation of Maria’s fierce resistance to change is complemented by memorable work from Christophe Lambert as her ex-husband and from Nicolas Duvachelle as their son who undergoes a startling and disturbing transformation from indolence to aggression. There’s also a well-judged cameo from Isaach de Bankolé as the rebel hero The Boxer, who hides out on Maria’s estate.

There are moments of trademark Denis opacity throughout White Material: ambiguous motivation, insufficiently defined relationships. These can intrigue and frustrate in equal measure, and sometimes result in fuzzy logic. Playing Maria’s ex-father-in-law, Michel Subor wanders through the film as some kind of decaying embodiment of colonialist corruption; his appearances (and final fate) seem misconceived and under-developed. At other times, though, White Material's refusal to guide the viewer’s interpretation of its characters is bracing and liberating. The director’s sensitivity to mood and atmosphere remains peerless, while her approach to violence here is discreet - and all the more shocking for it. This is another distinguished and distinctive work from Denis, an intense, gripping and disquieting film that gets under the skin.


  1. I'll be seeing White Material on Saturday (yay!), so I'll be sure to report back to comment here again once I have...

  2. I agree with your review, Alex. Denis's White Material is certainly gripping, intentionally unwilling to assert too clear an interpretation of its characters' motivations, and finely played by Huppert in the film's central performance. You're right that the opening sequence was brilliantly shot and paced, too.

    I teach a number of colonial and postcolonial texts in my courses, so I have the requisite background for understanding the film's complex conflicts, which I think some other viewers in the audience might have lacked. I heard many viewers making random comments about their confusion as we all filed out of the auditorium after the movie.

    And unfortunately, the packed theater at the museum where the film was screened was a bit too warm (on a very hot midsummer day in Boston), resulting in my taking a sizeable nap for a portion of the middle of the film. But the action of the scenes that I saw felt deliberate and suspenseful; the audience gasped out loud collectively on several key occasions. And it's good that I was wide awake again to watch the son's intense transformation scene...!

  3. Thanks, Jason. Yes, overall I think the film is another amazing achievement, and I look forward to revisiting it sometime. I wonder what you made of the ending, though: Huppert's bludgeoning of Subor's character...?

  4. That ending was very sudden, and a couple of women in front of me actually walked out at that point in the film, not realizing that it was nearly the end. Some people just can't handle blunt violence of that kind, I guess. But the motivations of all the characters in the film became increasingly based on paranoia, so it made sense to me. Very little resolution thereafter, however, which I suppose is also intentional on Denis's part, but frustrating to an impatient audience.