White Material Reviews
Isabelle Huppert gives another in a string of amazing performances as a determined woman who married into a wealthy white French family who runs a highly profitable African coffee plant. It is clear that since her former Father-in-law has sunk into a sort of drunken retirement, it has been her blood, sweat and tears that has kept the plantation and mill working. Long divorced from her husband, she seems to have largely raised their clearly somehow damaged son and is now more involved with her ex-husband's new wife and child than she really cares to be --- all of the challenges of her daily life take a back seat when the family's coffee plantation is threatened by an African Civil War and racial conflict.
Denis does not hold your hand. Much is never clearly explained. Luckily she has Huppert who can convey more with a glance or slight movement than most actors can achieve with a page of dialogue. We come to understand that Huppert's "Maria" is fighting her own internal struggle with sympathy for the revolution going on around her, but she is determined to get one last last coffee season completed. It almost seems as if her determination is fueled by her frustrations with this family and its stupidity in the way it has handled relations with the African natives of the land.
When her confused son allows a controversial African "Hero" who stands in opposition to this current regime attempting revolution a hiding place in their sprawling cave of a home -- challenges take on a far more dangerous level of risk -- not just for the family business but for the family itself.
As the hate-fueled rebellion gains rage and vengeance, the family is placed under "house arrest" and no one is willing to help Maria save her crop.
The last quarter of this film is so very important that I hesitate to write much more. Suffice to say that Claire Denis uses this familial and simultaneous civil war as reminders of the depths of human cruelty can take in the form of "ideals" and "control" -- In the end our protagonist comes face to face with Evil Face of Racism and the result is as surprising as it is devastating.
Claire Denis may not offer much in the way of explanation as she really doesn't need to do, but she holds nothing back in this visceral and disturbingly violent film. This is a world where "race" is really not the true motivation. "Children" are no more valuable than the money and righteousness that power can provide. Weapons are in the wrong hands -- sometimes too small to even hold them. And "innocence" and "evil intent" are meaningless in a coup bent on power.
Like Maria, we are left struggling to understand the enormity of what has just happened and continues to happen. This is a blunt and brutal cerebral gut punch of a film.
Be warned: This film is quite violent. Not for the feint of heart. However, if you think you can handle it -- Claire Denis has a great deal to say here -- And Isabelle Huppert gives one of her strongest film performances of her already breath-taking career. Cinematic Masterpiece.
I'm probably underrating this a bit, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
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.