White Material ****
Directed by: Claire Denis.
Written By: Claire Denis and Marie N'Diaye and Lucie Borleteau.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Maria Vial), Christopher Lambert (André Vial), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Manuel Vial), Isaach De Bankolé (Le Boxeur), William Nadylam (Chérif), Adèle Ado (Lucie), Ali Barkai (Jeep), Daniel Tchangang (José), Michel Subor (Henri Vial).
Depending on how you look at it, Maria Vial’s determination in White Material could be construed as brave, insane or just downright suicidal. She plays a woman in an unnamed African nation on the brink of Civil War. Early in the film, the French military flies over her plantation and tells her that she and her family should leave - they are pulling out and won’t be able to protect her anymore. But she knows everyone in the area - she thinks she has good relationships with everyone. This plantation has been in her ex-husbands family for generations, and she has run it for years. She is under the mistaken impression that this is her land - this is her country. The reality is that this country now belongs to the young men - children really - with the guns.
Isabelle Huppert, one of the bravest actresses in the world, gives a fearless performance as Maria in this film. It is quite different from many of her roles - yet what is shares with the best of her work, is the repression that she plays here. Throughout the whole film she is a study in repressed anger and fear. She ignores the warning signs that are clear to everyone else. She only needs a week to harvest the coffee, and damn it, she is going to see it done. Even when her entire staff walks out on her, she doesn’t give up - she simply heads to town and hires more people. And even though she has to go through road blocks, manned by gun toting men she thought she knew, doesn’t dissuade her. Everywhere she looks, things are changing - people are telling her to leave, but she simply will not go.
The career of Claire Denis has been an interesting one. To a certain extent, I’m sure some people will look at White Material as yet another movie about Africa told from the point of view of the white people in the area. Yet Denis has always concentrated on the outsiders - her last film was 35 Shots of Rum, and took place in Paris, yet was about an immigrant family. The two films are polar opposites in many respects, but are really the flip side of the same coin. The family in White Material is close - perhaps too close - but know that they will always be outsiders in France, so they depend on each other. The family in White Material doesn’t communicate with each other at all - and seem to not realize that they are not welcome in their adopted country. They are the last remnants of imperialism, and yet because they have always had “good relationships” with her workers, and the people in town, she believes that she will be safe. The reality is they have these relationships because she has money, and she has the backing of the French army, they had to respect her. But with the country descending into chaos, that protection is gone, and the reality of what they think of her and her family is becoming clear - at least to everyone except for Maria.
One of the interesting things about White Material is how Denis portrays the child soldiers, and the differing sides of the Civil War. Denis regular Issach De Bankole is the disposed soldier known as The Boxer, who is hiding out and waiting for help, and his enemies close in. He remains an enigma - as doe the politics of the situation - I had an impossible time telling what the differing sides were, and which side, if either was correct. The child soldiers are portrayed just as that - children with guns. They are still full of life and humor, but slowly becoming dehumanized because of what is going on.
The ending of White Material is a stunner - it is finally when Maria realizes what is going on, and more important, is able to admit it to herself. She finally lets out all that rage, all that fear and humiliation out of her. Huppert’s performance in this film is fearless - and should at least be in the Oscar conversation. She wanted to do this movie, and brought it to Denis, who then took the material and made it her own. This is a great partnership, and it produces one of the best films that either of these women has ever made.