FILM Claire Denis was raised in colonial Africa, and White Material is her third feature set in its wake (the first two were 1988’s Chocolat and 1999’s breathtaking Beau Travail). This new film is very much about Africa, compositing elements of several different “troubles” (child soldiers, a strong man’s militia, radio broadcasts fomenting violence) into an abstract of conflict. Between the dead-eyed rebels in the bush and the brutally efficient forces in town stands Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a colonial holdout. She continues to work her family’s coffee plantation after the European men have retreated indoors, after a French military helicopter has dropped survival kits on her land (she curses “these whites”), and finally after the African workers have fled. “Coffee’s coffee. Not worth dying for,” one tells her before speeding off.
As the troubles mount, Maria buries the signs of encroaching threats — literally when a cow’s head rolls out of a basket of coffee berries. Her refusal to be terrorized is a trait we typically ascribe to male action heroes (the film would make an interesting double-feature with 2008’s Gran Torino), though Maria’s resolute blindness is its own kind of privilege in the African context. Her restless movements are starkly contrasted by the wounded still lives of three men: her slothful son Manuel, a nihilist nitwit; a shadowy colonial patriarch who doesn’t walk beyond the threshold of his house; and an equally mysterious figurehead of the rebel movement ailing in a plantation dugout (played to some distraction by Isaach de Bankolé). A woman’s tragic strength, a weak grown child, a downward spiral knotted by a complex flashback structure: White Material seems a bit like a postcolonial Mildred Pierce.
Unusually for Denis, the film is both a literary adaptation (cowritten with author Marie NDiaye and based on Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing) and a star vehicle for Huppert, whose stringy musculature is a nice match for Yves Cape’s lithe camerawork. The idea of Maria’s character already tends toward the parabolic, though, and all these different inputs can result in too much dramatic underlining. When Maria’s flashback first lands us in the liberating rush of a motorcycle ride, Denis’ handheld cinematography generates an ample rush — but then Huppert lets her hair down with a flourish, and we feel we’re being pressed too hard. The same is true whenever the child soldiers march to Tindersticks’ funereal score, or when the mention of white material (Maria’s cigarette lighter, for instance) ends a scene on an overly foreboding note. Far more effective are those dizzying moments when a freshly vulnerable Maria notices rebel girls wearing her clothes.
For all White Material‘s novelistic concessions, Denis’ subtle command of composition and rhythm as elements of narration is beyond doubt. Her use of the handheld camera remains preternaturally attuned to her characters’ pleasures and anxieties, and she is still quite capable of finding the most telling framing of a given power dynamic. To that effect, there’s a brilliant shot early in Maria’s flashback when her regular workers leave the plantation. She implores them to stay, but they ride off one by one in an indistinct line, remaining out of focus while her darting head weaves the bulk of the widescreen frame. The vacuum of authority is vividly realized in seconds of screen time.
White Material begins at the end, with unattached subjective images of someone searching the plantation house with a flashlight. The beam settles on certain talismanic objects (a photograph of a young woman, an African mask, an oxygen tank) before sliding across more of the obscure space. The tantalizing vision of scenes like these makes me wish White Material wasn’t so dutifully attached to its (admittedly fierce) star. But watching the film a second time, I found that the embers of repression came into better focus between the broad strokes of plotting. Intimations and symbols flash through a dusky storm that doesn’t need a name to rumble.
WHITE MATERIAL opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters.