White Material Reviews
"White Material" tells the story of a woman of French descent (Huppert) struggling to hold onto her coffee plantation in Africa during a time of social unrest and armed rebellion. At times, the rebellion seems driven by lingering hostility toward European colonials and the African elites that supported them. At other times, it seems propelled by a rage for vandalism with no ideology whatsoever behind it. An army of hungry orphans comes together and roams the countryside almost indiscriminately terrorizing those they encounter.
A rebel leader (played by Isaach de Bankole, who also appeared in Denis's first film, "Chocolat," from 1988) gets separated from his troops and wanders through the outback alone, becoming the subject of much mythical storytelling like a latter-day Che Guevara. But he doesn't have much of a role in the film. It almost seemed that Denis wanted to give Bankole a role and threw his character together haphazardly. He appears here and there throughout the film in a rather pointless fashion.
But the rebellion is not the focus of the film. Most screen time is devoted to the plantation owner (Huppert) and her family, and they are surprisingly strange. You've never seen the descendants of European colonials depicted like this. Part of Denis's objective seems to be a critique of the whole enterprise of colonialism and its lingering after-effects. The disease of colonialism, she suggests, claimed victims all around, not just the locals. The colonial perpetrators themselves were warped by it as well, and their descendants many generations later are still suffering from many of those perversions and distortions.
Huppert's character power-walks around the countryside as if she's the queen. When the social situation gets dangerous, she seems blithely oblivious, as if the locals never even enter her consciousness. She is so used to being in a privileged social position that her mind can't even conceive of anyone hurting her or her family. Her blitheness initially comes across as courageous but gradually appears delusional. When Denis introduces us to the lady's family, we see more examples of how the descendants of colonialists have lost their bearings.
The film ends with an explosion of violence that is at times horrifying, much of it chaotic and inexplicable. There are so many layers of bitterness and hostility that you cannot keep track of who is angry at whom. When law and order break down, you get a bizarre cauldron of anti-social rage. At times, Denis depicts this trenchantly and effectively. Other times, it seems like sloppy filmmaking. When Huppert violently turns on a member of her own family, the film particularly comes off the rails.
But there is much to appreciate here. "White Material" is flawed, but it probes some fascinating issues that almost no other filmmakers ever explore. It also is gorgeously filmed. There's also the majestic screen presence of Huppert, one of the best actresses in cinema today.
The Boxer is alive, but wounded and hiding out at Cafe Vial, the coffee plantation managed by Maria Vial(Isabelle Huppert). However, she has other things on her mind than the current civil war, as she refuses the French army's offer to evacuate her before leaving her with some lovely parting gifts. She reasons that she only needs a few days to harvest the current crop before it goes bad. That is a task made infinitely harder when all of her workers and even the foremen have fled, leaving her to go off to hire more who are only trying to earn enough so that they too can leave.
Directed by Claire Denis, "White Material" is a provocative and occasionally shocking movie about the aftereffects of colonialism and by its very nature control. With Maria's father(Michel Subor) an invalid, an ex-husband(Christophe Lambert!?!) who she feels has always undermined her and this time has sold her out to Cherif(William Nadylam), the local mayor and a grown son(Nicolas Duvauchelle) who makes other layabouts look bad, she feels that she has to take control, as the former country's colonial masters once had. But that situation is no longer viable which the rebels are making perfectly clear. Interests clash as she is only interested in profits whereas the locals are more interested in survival and that of their families which of course is much more important. A lot of that has to do with the rebels who are not in control either with their followers who commit atrocities in their name, especially the child soldiers.
Claire Denis has a whole lot to say about Africa, it seems. She's directed a number of movies about Africa, including her best-known works (1988's Chocolat and 2008's 35 Shots of Rum bookending the first two decades of her career). 2009's White Material finally showed up in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, and I got to see a Claire Denis film on the big screen for the first time. And it's a good one. Most of the time, anyway.
Loosely based on The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing's first novel, White Material is the story of Maria Vial (The Piano Teacher's Isabelle Huppert), a coffee farmer in a nameless African country transitioning to independence. Neither the name of the country (Lessing's book is set in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; the film was shot in Cameroon, as far from Zimbabwe as one can get in sub-Saharan Africa) nor the time period (but it is to be understood that this is an historical, not a contemporary, drama) is given us, but I'm not entirely sure they matter. Maria lives on her family's coffee plantation, effectively running it. With her is her ex-husband Andre (Highlander's Christopher Lambert), their son Manuel (Denis regular Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ailing father-in-law Henri (Jules et Jim's Michel Subor), and a cadre of workers. Well, for a few brief moments at the beginning, anyway. As we open, independence is really starting to take hold-as the French army pulls out, the rural areas (read: places where you can stick a coffee plantation) are either under the iron hand of the State, bloody wastelands controlled by the rebels, or scenes of conflict between the two. The workers, who understand which way the wind's blowing, do the wise thing, pack up, and get out-leaving Maria and her family with coffee still on the vine. Five more days, she tells them, and you can go. Not that they're listening, and the rest of the movie's plotline is "how do we get this coffee harvested?" But the coffee takes a back seat to the other storylines here. The most compelling is that of The Boxer (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Isaach de Bankole), a rebel leader who stumbles into the Vial plantation, gut-shot during a battle and looking for a place to recuperate. (Whether Maria knows who he is from the get-go or not is subject to debate; I'm on the "yes" side, but for no concrete reason.) Then there is Manuel, disaffected youth looking for a thrill, and the relationship between Maria and Andre.
The last of these is given the least amount of time in the film, but it is the most real. It's a relationship that is disintegrating, like the marriage did before it, though not for lack of trying on anyone's part; there is still a real affection between these characters, and had their relationship been taken center stage, this might have been a much better movie than it is. But that is not the way Claire Denis and the film of African liberation work. Indeed, had any of these storylines taken control of the film save the one that actually does, it might well have been a better film than it is. But again that is not the way, etc. And by saying this I don't mean to declare outright this is a bad film, not by any means. It's far too fragmented in the first twenty minutes, and in the last twenty minutes, and while that makes sense given the subject matter (the country is fractured, and thus depictions of it should be), I can sympathize with those who found it overly artsy or disjointedness for disjointedness' sake. There's an art to keeping that sort of thing coherent. Though off the top of my head I can't think of anyone terribly well-versed in it. Even this movies I've loved that have done this sort of fractured-film thing recently (A Serbian Film jumps to mind) have made me say "keep going, it'll make sense eventually."
Here's the problem with Denis' film: there's nowhere to keep going. When I say the fracturing is the last twenty minutes, I mean the last twenty minutes. Then the movie just ends, and I guess the viewer's task is to pick up the pieces given you and make sense of them. To be fair to Denis, two of the four storylines are resolved in a coherent fashion. (The third, the fate of the Boxer, is revealed in the opening scene, as part of the beginning fragmentation of the film; the fourth, the fate of Maria and Andre's relationship, has been sealed long before.) But on the other hand, I look at the coherence in that scene, and the disjointedness of the rest of this part of the film, and it makes me even more frustrated.
But on the other hand, I liked it more than this review would have you believe. I like the sly comic touches, though "comic" is perhaps the wrong word; it's a gallows humor, and everyone in the film save the most self-deluded realizes this. Andre is a friend of the Mayor's, and when the Mayor shows off his hand-picked militia, who are going to spirit him out of the country unharmed, the look on Andre's face is classic. (Remember, this is Christopher Lambert you're looking at. Who knew?) It's little touches like that that keep this movie riveting. Of course, the cinematography is spectacular; every time I review a Nollywood flick, I find myself saying the same things about the cinematography (how hard can it be when you go to the edge of the city, walk in a straight line five miles, and you're in some of the most beautiful country on earth?), and they apply here. It's green and lush and dark and scary, even the barren parts. You're in the middle of a burned-out field or walking down a dirt road and there's still no place the green can't simply reach out and swallow you. There's a parallel to be made here about political instability, but I'm currently too tired to make it.
In the end, there is much to recommend about this movie, including some of its most surprising factors. (I keep harping on Christopher Lambert here...) And there are fewer things to not recommend, but the fewer are also the major. You'll have to see it for yourself and decide-which is a recommend, I should think. *** 1/2
For the casual film viewer, White Material may be a struggle. It is not a film to watch lightly. It is the story of Maria Vial, played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert. Vial is a Frenchwoman who runs a coffee plantation in Algeria. The catch is that civil war and unrest is arising all around Algeria, including the region where the plantation is. Maria is determined to stay on the plantation with her husband Andre and son Manuel, despite the fleeing of her many workers and impending danger of the war.
What makes the narrative, which features its share of violence but also of the calm beauty of unrest, as compelling as it is is the structure Denis chooses to tell the story. The film opens on a dead man nicknamed "The Boxer" and a helpless man caught amid the flames of his home. Then Denis cuts to Maria trying to get a ride back to her plantation. We soon learn, however, that this beginning is in reality an ending. The true story has already happened, so Denis flashes back to tell it, but the genius of the structure is the little bit of information the audience learns at the very beginning of the film.
To admit, I was not engulfed in the film all the way through, but after some time to reflect on the experience of White Material, I am more and more impressed with what Denis is able to do with her camera. I would be the first to admit that my movie tastes are often more mainstream than a fair amount of "movie buffs", but my love of these small, simple, what some might call "artsy" films is growing, and it is because of people like Denis who are able to deliver the simplicity in such stark, real ways that evoke the beauty of the endless capability of cinema in the world today.
I knew little of Algeria and of the French, and perhaps I still know as little as it was a work of fiction, but these are the kinds of films that are able to teach me something important: a fresh perspective. I find the best films are able to do that. And while White Material did not change my life, nor did it skyrocket into my favorites of all time, it was able to entertain me and deliver something new.
If you have something to say, say it! The age of the angry African metaphor has passed.
For something definitive, you might want to see Kim Nguyen's 2012 "Rebelle " (War Witch - 2012) or even the "rubber plantation" sequence from Coppola's extended masterpiece "Apocalypse Now Redux" (2001).
Then I think that maybe because I can't put my finger on it--that's why I love this film. Because there isn't just one thing that holds her back. People are more complicated than one thing.