Dir. Claire Denis. France. Cameroons. 2009

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Set in an unnamed African country embroiled in a brutal civil war after transitioning from French colonialism to independence, the insanity of war has never received a more graphic portrayal than in Claire Denis' White Material. Named to reflect the contempt in which blacks hold the white colonialists, it is a film gripped by tension, violence, and eventual madness, but with a strong sense of place and a remarkable feeling of authenticity. Though White Material is less elliptical than many of her films which entice viewers to fill in the gaps with their own imagination, its lack of background information and non-linear chronology can make it, at least initially, a somewhat disorienting experience.

Running a coffee plantation in the midst of the chaos, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor) who owns the plantation, and her layabout teenage son, Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle). She insists on business as usual despite the fact that her workers have abandoned their jobs out of fear of the child soldiers who make up the bulk of the rebel army. Pursued by the government militia, a wounded rebel leader (Isaach De Bankole), known only as “the Boxer”, takes refuge at the plantation, increasing the possibility of retaliation. 

Maria is warned by French soldiers from a helicopter that she should leave the country for her safety and that of her family, but she is proudly, if not blindly, determined to maintain the role that has always brought her security, though it is obvious from the first scene showing her alone on a road, that she has already been stripped of her colonial privileges. As author Andrew Sullivan once said, “When there's a challenge to our established world-view, whether from the absurd, the unexpected, the unpalatable, the confusing or the unknown, we experience a psychological force pushing back, trying to re-assert the things we feel are safe, comfortable and familiar.”

Refusing to face the inevitable, Maria goes into the village to recruit other workers, insisting that her coffee crop must be harvested, though it is unclear who she expects to sell it to. Without her knowledge, André begins to make arrangements to leave on his own and tries to make a deal with the mayor (William Nadylam) to sell the property. Even her son does not escape the madness. After being brutally attacked and stripped by young rebels, Manuel shaves off all of his hair, grabs a loaded rifle, and joins the rebel soldiers.

In one of the most telling scenes, after several pharmacists are murdered, the rebel soldiers, who include both young boys and girls, sit on the grass ingesting the stolen drugs as if they were on a picnic. 

Despite the violence in White Material, there are some lovely moments evoked by cinematographer Yves Capes: wild dogs on a dirt road illuminated by the headlights of a car, the sounds of reggae music broadcasted by a disc jockey who promotes rebel causes, and the sight of Maria hanging onto the ladder of a bus filled with black refugees. Considering the depth and breadth of Denis' filmography, White Material may be a minor film, yet it is a graceful work of art, filled with a dreamlike quality that makes a strong statement about the dehumanizing effects of war, regardless of the rightness of the cause.


Howard Schumann

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