White Material Reviews
As the story elliptically unravels, Maria's world is given to us. It's parceled out in small doses during flashbacks on a loaded bus on the road to nowhere-a method of storytelling that Denis adapted after a rigorously short shooting schedule began to create roadblocks in the original script. Not long into the film, we're introduced to every character. Maria works and lives on the plantation with her ex-husband, her son, a housemaid, and her father-in-law. The family exists together, but never in the same frame, a stylistic choice that conveys familial ties but a degree of love lost. Encased in the protection of the plantation's acreage, the family has created a buffer zone, albeit temporary, to the impending violence. On her trips into town, Maria fearlessly (and somewhat carelessly) encounters and coalesces to the erratic behavior of rebel soldiers. Having a gun pointed in her face becomes a common occurrence, and her internal, minutely discernible ferocity becomes her lifeline. One has to be mad to deal so effortlessly with chaos. Some of Huppert's best work comes from these scenes. You're never quite sure how she does it or where it comes from, but it's there. She harnesses the resolve of a boxer, revealing it in such a minimal way that you would miss it if you blinked.
Maria's son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) remains holed up in his room, under the covers until late in the day. Her lack of maternal presence has in certain ways hampered his upbringing, not to mention the drastic change in lifestyle that appeared when moving from France to a remote African outpost. His unfortunate encounter with curious natives sets a series of events in motion that are the end result of years of pent up anger, frustration and ambivalence towards his mother, as well as various other things.
Seeking refuge in the plantation is the rebellions' wounded figurehead, The Boxer. The opening sequence of the film shows government troops identifying his dead body, and we immediately become aware of the fate that looms for Café Vial. What Denis does after establishing this is intelligently, creatively guide us to the grim, nightmarish, but expected conclusion of a tale that could only end one way. Maria's ex-husband is rarely seen, except for in his dealings with the town mayor. Fearing for his life, he signs the plantation over to the mayor and plans for his escape. As one might guess, this does not stop Maria from selfishly pursuing her work at the expense of her and her son's safety.
Isabelle Huppert's performance in the film is fantastic. She's embodies the very essence of Maria Vial, and channels her through subdued but carefully calibrated physicality. There are numerous extended takes of her merely standing in the frame, allowing Denis' camera to capture the nuances of movement, body carriage and facial expressions. These non-verbal occurrences can convey just as much as words, and in the case of "White Material," they most certainly do. Many reviews of the film have assessed it as being charged with political overtones. In my opinion, this could not be further from the truth. This film is no more of a political statement than "Goodfellas" is an endorsement of organized crime. What both films do is simply observe their characters and the absurdities of the worlds they inhabit. "White Material" is simply a nightmarish, evocative study of one woman's madness. The film marks Denis' second return to the subject matter of French colonial Africa, a time and a place that the director is all too familiar with. Her 1988 semi-autobiographical debut feature, "Chocolat," recounts her experiences as a child growing up in Cameroon. "Chocolat" remains far less sinister than "White Material," but both deal directly with the subject of French colonialism on the African continent.
The brilliance of "White Material" lies in Denis' ability to guide us through the films' occurrences. She harnesses an uncanny visual creativity that is astounding to watch. Throughout the duration of the movie, Denis allows her images to explain everything by simply speaking for themselves. In all of her films, a unique visual language is at the center of her stories. This is especially true of her 1999 feature "Beau Travail." A lyrical and meditative minimalist piece of very little dialogue is taken to a remarkable level by a distinct use of imagery and creativity behind the camera. Although "White Material" deals with a busier narrative, the film works very much the same way. An effective mixture of close-ups, static shots, and shifting from hand-held cameras to those mounted on a fixed base create a distinct visual energy that defines the excellence of the film. "White Material" was made in tandem with another great film by Denis, "35 Shots of Rum." This picture exists in stark contrast to "White Material", but is equally brilliant in its observance of nuance and implementation of a trademark visual language. Another great attribute this film possesses is its bone-chilling musical score. The Tindersticks, who are used on the majority of Denis' films, have created one of the most sinister, affecting musical themes that I've heard in a movie in quite some time. "White Material" was released in France in 2009, but did not open in the United States until early 2010. Along with David Michod's "Animal Kingdom", this is one of the two best films of the past year.
To many critics this film might seem applauding, I didn't find it too close to the reality of their liking this. I know the bright cultural-life of the people around the world, but to see a lady like Maria, who doesn't give up on her plantation, irrespective of inevitable life-threats against her beloved son, her ex-husband and herself.
NOTE: My eldest brother has been to number of African countries. Thus he once told me that Africa has an ideal climate of environment to be found in the world; this is why, he said that despite many countries gaining independence from colonial rule by British, French, Portugal, Spain etc, white people still live on in Africa.
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
Astonishingly powerful and intelligently complex, this multidimensional work from Denis is proof what an interesting story and a storyteller unafraid to take risks can do. With its structure all over the place, a knockout performance from Isabelle Huppert - she lives this role - and a smartly balanced approach to the question of colonialism and its effects, White Material surely stands as one of the best works of its year. Astonishingly good filmmaking.