White Material (Criterion)
Claire Denis’s debut feature, Chocolate (1988), took on the legacy of French colonialism in the West African country of Cameroon through the eyes of a young French woman recalling her childhood growing up in the tensions of race, class and dislocation. Thirty years later she returned for White Material, which takes on many of the same issues from an older, more experienced perspective, both in terms of the artist and our protagonist.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, French by ancestry, African by birth. Denis was raised in Cameroon until the age of 13 and the experience still clearly haunts her, but Maria is no stand-in for Denis. Maria is a woman in an unnamed West African trying to hold on to her family coffee plantation that her family no longer cares about while a civil war rages around her.
The film opens in the midst of chaos and fear as rebels advance on this dusty patch of country and Maria defies the tide of evacuation to return to her farm. Huppert’s incarnation of the intensity and will of Maria, beyond logic or safety, powers the film. She is maddeningly single-minded, risking not just her life but her family and the day workers she rounds up to help harvest the crop when her employees run off. She refuses to acknowledge the danger and hides the truth of the situation from everyone else. Meanwhile armed child soldiers wander the property, looting the “white material” of European habitation, and rebels close in as one rebel leader (Isaach de Bankolé) bleeds out in a corner of the plantation.
This is the kind of stubbornness romanticized in American frontier dramas but is far more ambiguous here. Race and culture aside, she considers it her country and the plantation her land and she’s not going to give it up without a fight, even if her grown son (Nicolas Duvauchelle), an arrogant, racist kid who takes his privilege for granted, and her ex-husband (Christophe Lambert), a ne’er do well looking to sell the place from under her, have no interest in holding out or holding on. But from the perspective of the Black Africans, she’s not just an outsider but a predator, a foreigner whose wealth and privilege came at the expense of the native population. They owe her nothing.
Denis never identifies the country, the war, even the era. All we know is that the French Colonial government (and the occupation forces with it) is pulling out and rebel soldiers and power-savvy politicians fill the vacuum. Locations are (to our eyes) abstracted in relation to one another. The timeline is shuffled. Radio reports bounce between news and propaganda. Sudden bursts of violence make the stakes palpable even to Maria’s state of denial. Even if it doesn’t change it.
The experience is mesmerizing and discomforting. Denis keeps us in a state of anxiety, lost and unmoored as the world shifts around with the force of violence. The plantation looks increasingly like a ruin, abandoned but for a few lone figures in the landscape, notably Maria, one of the sole white faces left (and Huppert certainly does stand out) in a sea of Black Africans. Politics and power are at the root of everything to be sure, and as it all unravels in the civil war, the tensions and resentments of race, class and wealth are exposed raw. Yet even vengeance is less terrifying than the simple drive for power and dominance in an atmosphere of violence unleashed. Anyone and everyone can be a target here and Maria becomes simply another legacy of white material.
The supplements are small compared to many Criterion editions but they are substantial. There are excellent new video interviews with director Claire Denis (24 minutes) and actors Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankolé (each about 13 minutes, the latter in English), each conducted specifically for this release, and the 12-minute documentary “Ecrans Noirs Film Festival, 2010,” which Denis shot for the film’s premiere in Cameroon (where the film was shot). Also features one deleted scene and a trailer, plus a 24-page booklet with a new essay by critic Amy Taubin.