White Material - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

White Material Reviews

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½ March 1, 2014
Hey, I signed up to watch Isabelle Huppert struggle against the odds as her family's farm crumbles in Africa, and that's what I got. But does so much of the movie have to be her silently walking across beautiful backgrounds? This is the case of a movie begging for a book adaptation.
½ October 29, 2013
Claire Denis captures some shocking images of war-time atrocities in this film, but it's undermined by the film's scattered plot, and lack of substantial character development.
½ September 22, 2013
The cinematography is orgasmic.
May 22, 2013
J. Hoberman used the word "lysergic" in his review and that's pretty apt because the Tindersticks soundtrack, used sparingly, does provide a hazy druggy sheen to parts of the movie. Isabelle Huppert is determined to ignore the trouble that is all around her as the colonial era comes to a decided end in her part of Africa. Claire Denis's film unblinkingly covers the terrain: both rebels and the military armed and dangerous along with child soldiers seemingly in their own militia and perhaps much more dangerous. The social and psychological effects of white settlement (and ownership -- Huppert runs a coffee plantation) in Africa are the focus -- the unnamed country is divided by their feelings toward the outsiders (even those born there). Denis, also born and raised in Africa, provides impressions, images, something of a story, to show the legacy of (French) involvement and exploitation. Shot in Cameroon, this is a beautiful horrifying and unresolved film.
½ May 15, 2013
Claire Denis nos entrega este denso drama, en el cual una mujer blanca en un pais sin identificar de Africa debe tomar una fuerte decision frente a la inminente guerra civil: o abandona el pais perdiendo sus plantaciones de cafe, o se queda y expone su vida y la de sus familias. La tension se siente desde el primer momento, sin embargo, algunas situaciones se ven demasiado diseñadas para hacer mas interesante la trama. Creo que por ello los "expertos" le ponen un 88% y el publico solo un 60. En el fondo, es una pelicula que no se entiende mucho, pues mucho insinua pero poco resuelve.
April 28, 2013
Dette uforglemmelige drama af Claire Denis brænder igennem og giver seeren en følelse af frygt og raseri omkring de grusomheder, der sker i det centrale Afrika.
April 24, 2013
Its certainly not a bad film, but I found it frustrating to watch.
½ April 16, 2013
Interesting as a document from post-colonial Africa, but...
March 12, 2013
Enjoy your exotic fair trade African coffee? Claire Denis knows exactly where it comes from and at what cost... Here she teams up with Isabelle Huppert to explore the darkness and the madness colonialism has inflicted in Africa, beautifully. Fingers ain't pointed and nobody is innocent. Patriarchalism? Change? Hope? Great food for thought and a worthy subject at your local...café.
January 11, 2013
Quite an engrossing film. I'm not the type of person who enjoys being kept in the dark though. Throughout the whole film I was thinking "Which country is this supposed to be set in" and "Why is that kid helping the kids that just robbed him" and "Why don't they flee like they are supposed to". Unfortunately not many of my questions were answered but I appreciate that this is a picture of Africa without being specific and it is surely all about the performance of Isabelle Huppert.
January 2, 2013
A film which does not explore deeply enough the characters nor the background of the story to make the picture truly involving.
½ December 5, 2012
Director Claire Denis' "White Material" is the stuff of enigmatic, puzzling and beautiful cinema. Using the kind of story prevalent in today's global headlines as its narrative framework, the film meanders down a circuitous path of nightmarish nihilism, self-destruction and unchecked madness. Maria Vial-played brilliantly with reserved fierceness and physicality by Isabelle Huppert-is this unnamed African land's Queen of the Nihilists. She equally embodies her character and the film, making it the most unique examination of French colonialism to date. Helmed by the most creative director working in contemporary French cinema today, "White Material" is auteur Claire Denis' striking, uncompromising visual poem about a woman consumed by the madness of the land that surrounds her. This land, an unnamed country that could represent any number of current war-torn, violence-ridden African territories, is on the brink of revolution. The country is a French satellite, but the looming threat of a violent uprising has forced them to relinquish their stronghold. Maria and her family run a coffee plantation amidst the chaos, and she remains irrationally steadfast in her determination to maintain its productivity. What she fails to see, or, for that matter, acknowledge, is the immediate danger that surrounds her decision. This decision becomes Maria's plight, but we're never quite sure if she's even aware of it. She's consumed with her work, blinded by ambition, driven by fear, cares for nothing and disregards the emotional and physical dangers associated with her carelessness-the fragile, fierce, immovable nihilistic queen of Café Vial.

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.
November 8, 2012
White Material French film directed by Claire Denis who co-wrote it with Marie NDiaye. Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria Vial. Adopted from the book of same name by Claire Denis. Maria lives in an unnamed African country, she is coffee-producer. She stays on at her family's coffee plantation with her ex-husband, his father and their son, despite knowing the facts that the civil-war has already erupted.

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.
October 25, 2012
Despite it being probably the longest anti-coffee PSA ever, it was a beautiful, thought provoking film that could've been a masterpiece had some of the secondary characters had a bit more depth.
September 25, 2012
Isabelle Huppert is stunning (as usual). The colors and textures of the film add to the atmosphere it creates. The transformation of her son was at the same time recognizable and chilling. I went into the movie not knowing what it was about. This is a really wonderful film.
Super Reviewer
July 25, 2012
Fearless, superlative, slow building and gut-punching drama with a powerful performance from Isabelle Huppert. This astonishing film concerning the "legacy" of colonialism has innumerable memorable sequences and points of view; it is a truly original and riveting work from the inimitable Claire Denis.
½ July 13, 2012
White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)

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
May 15, 2012
A tense and forbidding atmosphere haunts this post-colonial story of a white coffee-planation manager in the midst of a violent rebellion. Don't expect Hollywood narrative exposition in this French film.
March 22, 2012
hubert is a force 2 b reckoned with in this tale of life during wartime-african style.
½ February 23, 2012

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.
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