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Hélène de Saint-Père
Denis revisits Africa, this time exploring a place rife with civil and racial conflict. A white French family outlawed in its home and attempting to save its coffee plantation connects with a black hero also embroiled in the tumult. All try to survive as their world rapidly crumbles around them Written by
Pusan International Film Festival
Denis returns to Afriaca -- an undefined country there -- to explore colonialism and revolution in this film that has more in common with her wonderfully mysterious 'The Intruder' (2004) -- though it's less successful -- than with her warm-hearted family story '35 Shots of Rum' (2008).
At the center here too is a family, the Vials, French colonial types who own a coffee plantation, or did own one. And at the center of this family is the scrawny, determined Maria (Isabelle Huppert), as brave as she is heedless. Everything is falling apart, but she simply won't give up -- or even acknowledge that there's any danger.
But here, as in various African countries, government forces are at war with rebels and schools are closing and children are turning into dangerous, thrill-seeking warriors popping pills and wielding pistols, machetes, and spears. The plantation workers are fleeing just at harvest time, and the Vials themselves are warned by a helicopter flying overhead that it's time to get out. The rebel army's missing leader, known as "the boxer" (Isaach de Bankolé of Jarmusch's 'Limits of Control' and of Denis' original Africa film 'Chocolat') has reappeared, wounded, hiding out in the plantation, which makes it a double target.
The family itself seems to have fallen apart some time ago, though as usual in Denis' films, the relationships and family histories aren't meant to be immediately clear. Maria's ex-father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor of 'The Intruder') is mysteriously sick; he seems to know more than the others, but he is powerless; he reigns over nothing -- except that he is the real owner of the plantation. Maria's ex-husband André Vial (Christophe Lambert) has a son by a new young black wife, Lucie (Adele Ado). Maria and André have an older son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who has turned into a sluggard, and seems deranged. Later after being attacked and humiliated by two black boys (they rob him naked and cut off a lock of his blond hair), he shaves off the rest of his hair, takes a rifle and his mother's motorcycle, and becomes a wild rebel himself.
Meanwhile André has made a deal with the wily black mayor (William Nadylam), presumably to get money to escape, and the mayor now owns the plantation, and feels whatever happens he'll be okay because he has his own private army. All the while there are messages over the radio broadcast by a disc jockey playing reggae and saying the rebels are coming. But soldiers in gray uniforms are coming to kill almost everyone, including some of the child soldiers, and some members of the Vial family after Manuel goes over to the rebels.
None of this matters as much as the fact that Maria, a kind of foolish Mother Courage or life force, fights on till the end, even when the new workers she recruits flee, a sheep's head turns up in the coffee beans signifying doom, the power is cut, the gasoline runs out, and family members disappear or are killed. Maria repeatedly says she can't go back to France; to a young black woman she admits it's probably because she can't give up her power. She also says in France she couldn't "show courage." In short, she's useless anywhere else. She has contempt for the fleeing French soldiers, calling them "dirty whites" that never belonged here. This is her element. Unfortunately, her element is disintegrating. "White material," in English, is a phrase used variously by the African locals to denote possessions of the whites and the whites themselves. A child rebel comments that "white material" isn't going to be around much any more.
Denis is good at creating a sense of the many-layered chaos. Her mise-en-scène is vivid and atmospheric. Yet something isn't quite right. The casting feels wrong. Butor is a relic from a better movie, Lambert is unnecessary. Duvauchelle, who has played rebels but determined, disciplined ones, seems out of place with all his tattoos as a youth born in Africa and a good-for-nothing. Nobody can play an indomitable woman better than Isabelle Huppert, but for that very reason it would have been a welcome surprise to see a completely new face in this role.
As 'Variety' reviewer Jay Weissberg notes, the images by the new d.p. Yves Cape are less rich than those of Denis regular Agnes Godard, but may suit the violent action situation better, and the delicately used music is wonderfully atmospheric. This is definitely a Claire Denis film. What's unique is its sense of foreboding. You feel Maria is somehow bulletproof and yet you also fear that at any moment she'll walk into something she can't get out of.
Still, after the wonderful warmth of '35 Shots of Rum' and the haunting complexity of 'The Intruder,' there doesn't seem as much to ponder or to care about here, and even if this is a fresh treatment of familiar material, it's a bit of a disappointment. From another director it might seem impressive and exceptionally original, but from Denis, is seems to lack something, some more intense scenes, some grand finale.
Shown as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.
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