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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
Has some sense of Africa but feels like a lot was left on the cutting room floor
White Material is a film about a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (shot in Cameroon). Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) runs the place for her father Henri (Michel Subor). She has a layabout son called Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and a weak-willed husband André (played by Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame).
The French army is withdrawing and the country is fractured into regular army, rebels, and newly-formed mad-dog local militias out for rape and pillage, sprung from the ground once law and order dissolves, like Ray Harryhausen's skeleton warriors of the dragon's teeth (Jason and the Argonauts).
It's time to banish the White Material, that is white folk and the trappings of white living. Maria doesn't want to know though and stays on stubbornly trying to process her coffee crop.
The film is quite pretty and captures the feel of Africa on the ground, of the isolation and the wild beauty, but also the extreme lurking danger. Denis has roots in Africa and so manages a lot of authenticity. The dialogue is occasionally awesome, soliloquies in which Maria curses whites and talks about Africa in relation to Europe particularly stand out.
Unfortunately I think there are weak elements, Lambert isn't good enough and his character isn't even necessary (which goes for Henri too), Maria does something brutal and inexplicable at the end (in true clichéd Huppert style), and the film looks like it took a severe amount of cutting as there are plot threads that are barely picked up. The film has the feel of an overly condensed epic. The biggest problem though maybe the narrative structure, where the end occurs at the beginning, which in all frankness, and with due respect to a director who has entertained me with great films more than once, comes off as amateurish.
As usual the Tindersticks provide a wonderful soundtrack for Denis, so important for an auteur to have a proper musical collaborator, but they basically paper over the cracks.
The film is good enough if you just look at is as mesmerising anarchy, but it's not a multi-faceted Denis masterpiece. Isaach De Bankolé is underused as Le Boxeur, the rebel hero general, he's a symbol of a strong moral Africa, gut-shot and dying alone. This character lingers in the memory.
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