by Richard von Busack
DIRECTOR Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum) creates a situation in which it would be easy to take an either/or opinion—and then she gradually complicates it. At first, White Material seems to be a story about a blinkered French colonialist who can’t tell that the country around her is on fire, even after the army has pulled out. Conversely, we may be watching a smarter, smaller-scale Out of Africa. And we’re meant to applaud a courageous woman risking everything to hang on to her property, a coffee plantation somewhere in Francophone Africa.
Surrounded by violence, decay and lassitude, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to bring in the crop. The unnamed country around her (Denis shot in Cameroon) is up in arms. Most of the men around her are ill or worthless. Maria’s son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is a day sleeper with tattoos, and as events transpire, he’s a serious fool to boot: the worst kind of fool, the kind who goes straight from inaction to overreaction. Christopher Lambert plays her ex-husband: yesterday’s glamour-puss is today’s satiated tomcat. Maria’s ex-father-in-law, the patriarch who lives on the premises, is dying slowly.
Meanwhile, the noblest-looking man in the film, a revolutionary known as “The Boxer” (Isaach De Bankolé), is being hunted down; mortally wounded, he takes refuge on Maria’s farm because he’s the nephew of the foreman. Denis scrambles the time sequence with flashbacks and flash-forwards, to upset the flow of action and consequence. It’s impossible to form an opinion about the rebellion and that’s exactly what the filmmakers had in mind. There are dropped hints about what the director or screenwriter thinks (the script is by the celebrated French writer Marie NDiaye).
Maria says she stays in Africa because she has no way to prove her bravery back in France—a statement so vibrantly insane that one swallows it fast before considering its madness. The boy rebels and the uniformed government soldiers profess the same aim: getting the colonialists out. We hear a chorus to this film’s Greek tragedy in the form of radio broadcasts, made by a calm reggae fancier who is urging the populace to loot (“And don’t be gentle”). He’s forcibly replaced by a government soldier who says the same thing in different words.
The ageless, ever-ambiguous Huppert is beautifully posed. In one dream sequence, she smokes marijuana, her hair fanned on a embroidered pillow, as she has her son’s fortune told. (The strange fortune comes true, with the all brutality of a prophecy in a folktale.) Denis displays great skill with startling images: black survival kits falling out of a helicopter like animal droppings; a goat’s severed head emerging from a basket of cherry-red coffee berries; Huppert, as pale as milk and thin as a wire, clinging to the back of an overcrowded jitney.