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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'
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.
The setting for the film is a West African, French-speaking country
riven by civil unrest and fighting between the army and rebels who
consist of children, many orphaned. The rebels' icon and unofficial
leader is a former soldier known as The Boxer (a cameo from Isaach de
Bankole). Directed by Clare Denis she presents the country's
unravelling situation and uses a non-linear narrative to loop back and
forth within the 48-hour period that is the story's time frame.
Amidst the mayhem we are slowly introduced to the owners of a coffee plantation, who are a white family of French origins: Maria Vial (Huppert), her ex-husband Andre (Lambert), their son Manuel and his grandfather Bernard. Living with the family is Andre's second wife/partner Lucie and their son Jose. At the point we meet the family they are 5 days from coffee harvest and their workers are fleeing the plantation afraid for their lives. They leave to return home because 'coffee is just coffee and not worth dying for'. Maria does not feel the same way and recruits some replacement workers to ensure a successful harvest. Meanwhile Andre, who shares the workers' fears, is plotting the family's escape which means selling the plantation to the local mayor who will ensure their safe passage out of the country. This is kept from Maria who has vowed never to leave.
As events unfold it is obvious to everyone around Maria that the situation is becoming less stable and increasingly precarious. She refuses to see or acknowledge this. Interspersed throughout we hear a DJ allied to the rebels, used as a sort of narrator, playing reggae and making pronouncements against the existing government and white people, who are the 'white material' of the title.
The film's narrative and characters make it difficult for the viewer to apprehend what is happening immediately and/or to like/relate to the characters easily. This is part of its success: the situation and people we are presented with are complex. Although of French origin and white we learn that Bernard and Manuel were both born in the country making them citizens. Maria has left France and never wants to return; she herself despises the white French people ('these dirty whites ... they don't deserve this beautiful land') and clearly does not perceive herself to be one even though the rebels and army see her as one such 'dirty white' who makes the country 'filthy'. Throughout is woven the theme of where is home and what it means to feel you belong and rooted in a situation where others label you an outsider.
Maria is a tough fighter but lacks sensitivity and does not seem to realise, or wish to see, how she is perceived. We witness the tragic consequences of this to her, her family and the people who work with her as the film works to its conclusion.
The film is beautifully shot with an atmospheric soundtrack provided by Tindersticks. The colours, the heat, the expanse are well evoked and make you realise why Maria loves it so she is prepared to risk her life and those close to her. There is spare use of dialogue and Huppert excels at the role of Maria, a difficult woman of few words. This is the sort of film that benefits from more than one watch as Denis packs in characters and events all of which add to the texture of the film and its politics.
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.
White Material is a troubling film that reminded me of Francis Ford
Coppola's reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, i.e. not as
psychological allegory but as fable for pertinent updating. The story
revolves around the central figure of Marie, a white European African
farm owner, who blindly refuses to acknowledge the danger of
increasingly volatile local social unrest. Claire Denis spins a grander
web from this precarious situation, invoking the precarious
relationships that Marie supports and connects: a one-woman lynch-pin
of love, industry and care.
I have not seen the recent Home or Gabrielle, to name two well-received recent performances from Huppert, but for me this is a very significant, form performance from the celebrated French actress. It is her sort of role to be sure: realist, serious, preoccupied, veiled. In addition I enjoyed her free physicality and lack of self-consciousness, helped no doubt by Denis' free camera-work, which often involves chasing Huppert around (her character is driving the film so Denis allows her to literally pull the action along).
Space is created for Marie's son to become the terminally dysfunctional, un-rooted wreck that others allude to, although he inspires no pity. Christopher Lambert, the father, is a marginal but clearly a more urbane figure whose absence tells you all you need to know about his relationship to the work-centred Marie. The supporting cast of native Africans are, unusually, all very good (in location films, there are often a number of local 'actors' who don't live up to the description) notably William Nadylam's Chérif with his Ejiofor-like self-possession and stillness. This film also has the distinction of having the most nausea-inducing child-murder sequence I've ever seen - or, more to the point, heard. 7/10
Chaos reigns in some nameless, war-torn African nation that seems to be
a mishmash of various failed states on that continent. A murderous
rag-tag guerrilla group searches the jungle wilderness for its
charismatic wounded leader The Boxer, while some equally ruthless
government soldiers try to hunt him down. As the signs of war multiply,
The Boxer finds a hiding place in some deserted outbuildings at the
Vial coffee plantation which has been abandoned by its terrified
workers. Fear surrounds the decaying French-owned estate where Maria
Vial resides with her ex-husband Andre, their dissolute half-mad son
and her hated father-in-law. Maria ignores warnings to leave and
fixates neurotically on an unharvested coffee crop, while Andre
conspires to arrange secret deals with the sinister local mayor to hand
over the property in exchange for safe passage out of the country.
Director Denis makes no attempt to explore her characters, their relationships or the stories behind their present condition - apparently she is satisfied with documenting the surface symptoms of communal meltdown. She focuses on Maria, but reveals nothing about her heroine except for the infuriating obsession with the neglected coffee beans. All the other characters possess similarly opaque, one-dimensional personalities - the Europeans are reduced to stereotypes of colonial decadence, while the Africans are portrayed as bloodthirsty and venal. When the film culminates in an orgy of capricious madness and violence it's impossible to care about anyone's fate, because it's been obvious for a tediously long while that it's all a metaphor, and the participants are merely symbolic cardboard cut-outs.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Set in an unnamed African country embroiled in a brutal civil war after
transitioning from French colonialism to independence, the insanity of
war has never received a more graphic portrayal than in Claire Denis'
White Material. Named to reflect the contempt in which blacks hold the
white colonialists, it is a film gripped by tension, violence, and
eventual madness, but with a strong sense of place and a remarkable
feeling of authenticity. Though White Material is less elliptical than
many of her films which entice viewers to fill in the gaps with their
own imagination, its lack of background information and non-linear
chronology can make it, at least initially, a somewhat disorienting
Running a coffee plantation in the midst of the chaos, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor) who owns the plantation, and her layabout teenage son, Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle). She insists on business as usual despite the fact that her workers have abandoned their jobs out of fear of the child soldiers who make up the bulk of the rebel army. Pursued by the government militia, a wounded rebel leader (Isaach De Bankole), known only as "the Boxer", takes refuge at the plantation, increasing the possibility of retaliation.
Maria is warned by French soldiers from a helicopter that she should leave the country for her safety and that of her family, but she is proudly, if not blindly, determined to maintain the role that has always brought her security, though it is obvious from the first scene showing her alone on a road, that she has already been stripped of her colonial privileges. As author Andrew Sullivan once said, "When there's a challenge to our established world-view, whether from the absurd, the unexpected, the unpalatable, the confusing or the unknown, we experience a psychological force pushing back, trying to re-assert the things we feel are safe, comfortable and familiar."
Refusing to face the inevitable, Maria goes into the village to recruit other workers, insisting that her coffee crop must be harvested, though it is unclear who she expects to sell it to. Without her knowledge, André begins to make arrangements to leave on his own and tries to make a deal with the mayor (William Nadylam) to sell the property. Even her son does not escape the madness. After being brutally attacked and stripped by young rebels, Manuel shaves off all of his hair, grabs a loaded rifle, and joins the rebel soldiers. In one of the most telling scenes, after several pharmacists are murdered, the rebel soldiers, who include both young boys and girls, sit on the grass ingesting the stolen drugs as if they were on a picnic.
Despite the violence in White Material, there are some lovely moments evoked by cinematographer Yves Capes: wild dogs on a dirt road illuminated by the headlights of a car, the sounds of reggae music broadcasted by a disc jockey who promotes rebel causes, and the sight of Maria hanging onto the ladder of a bus filled with black refugees. Considering the depth and breadth of Denis' filmography, White Material may be a minor film, yet it is a graceful work of art, filled with a dreamlike quality that makes a strong statement about the dehumanizing effects of war, regardless of the rightness of the cause.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Isabelle Huppert (along with Helen Mirren, Juliette Binoche and Laura
Linnie) is one of my five favorite actors (the only male on the list
being Bill Murray), so I had no doubt that she could realistically play
a colonial coffee farmer trying to hang on in soon-to-be post-colonial
From the opening scene, there seems to be no doubt that things will turn out badly for Huppert's character. This is, after all, not war-torn Algeria portrayed in "Battle of Algiers", where the French are going to fight tenaciously to hold onto "their" land and then suddenly fold and get out of Dodge City. This is sub-Saharan Africa, and the politicians back in France know that it will be more profitable, and maybe even easier for them, to turn their colonies over to local African dictators, who can then be bought off for the benefit of French corporations and politicians. It's a win-win situation for everyone...except for the vast majority of Africans and Huppert's character. Perhaps we could let the French off the hook by saying that France couldn't have prepared their African colonies for independence if they had wanted to. But the French certainly did nothing positive in their colonies during their stay or after they left (the best we can say is that the Belgians in the Congo were much worst).
This is life in the land of barely living, where the local African warlords have no background in or time for the niceties of "civilized" brutality and exploitation a la française. Huppert seems oddly out of place, a relatively nice colonist who perhaps thinks naively that she can trade on her relative niceness to survive the new and very ugly reality about to engulf her. But she is completely out of touch with the reality. She could choose to leave, unlike the Africans who work on her plantation. But she somehow thinks she has no choice but to stay even as child-soldiers wander across the countryside around here.
I mainly saw "White Material" mainly because I like Isabelle Huppert acting, because one seldom sees a movie filmed in sub-Saharan Africa and because I had read Louroma's "Les Soleils des Indépendance" dealing with Ivory Coast. But I spent most of the movie hoping that when her time came, Huppert's character would take one carefully-aimed shot to head to relieve her suffering.
A couple of other points. The Supplement interview with Claire Denis is well worth seeing (Isabelle Huppert's interview is okay; unfortunately the disk wouldn't let me watch the interview with Isaach de Bankolé). I was glad that the child-soldiers were not shown committing a lot of the violence in the film. And as Denis points out, the local actors were very good. I also know that not all African countries are the same, but I also wondered about whether there was a lot of violence against women during the conflict in Ivory Coast like is currently occurring every day in Congo. Still I was glad that violence against women was not shown; it wouldn't have added to the film's message or effect.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Clare Denis is no stranger to setting her films in Africa and in White
Material it is there we visit. In an unnamed nation, a woman walks
along a dirt track trying to get a lift before eventually succeeding
and as she rests we get taken back earlier to when see how she came to
this point. The woman Maria is a white woman is a African country on
the brink, despite warnings from those around her, as well as the
French Army, desperation makes her seek out a way to finish the coffee
crop on her plantation despite the ever increasing risks and threats
towards the whites.
As her separated husband makes a deal to sell the plantation, her workers up and leave fearful of war, but she manages to hire new staff to try and complete the task. Encouraging her teenage son to join in, he reluctantly does so only to have a horrid encounter with two young armed children, an event which leaves him desperate and altered and he goes of the rails. Maria meanwhile risks further harm by sheltering a wounded rebel leader., as the situation around her becomes more violent and dire.
Denis has crafted a very good film here, one that from the outset has a sense of tension, foreboding, of the unknown and that menace is around every corner. The lush tropical surrounds stand side by side with the violence and bloodshed or innocents murdered and others fleeing for their lives. Isabelle Huppert is superb as the defiant but embattled Maria, who seemingly refuses to accept what is happening, as she states, 'things have been the same for months', self denial towards a worsening situation.
The film highlights the horror of conflict, that it effects everyone, no matter what side you choose and that in some countries conflict sees no boundaries with age as we see children and young woman brandishing guns and machetes. The film pays some attention to this and the absurdity of children fighting; we see the children handle guns like experts and shoot dead innocence before gorging on sweets and sleeping the day away before they themselves succumb to the horrors of war.
It is a thought provoking film one that s it progresses becomes more and more startling in it's depiction of war and the outcome is shocking and tragic to say the least. Powerful stuff.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
WHITE MATERIAL CATCH IT ( B- ) White material is complex and gritty no doubt about that. Kudos for choosing an unusual story about a French woman, who refuse to leave Africa during racial disputes. Nonetheless the story is fascinating but the movie is really slow and multifaceted. Somehow the director didn't try to educate the viewers, she just pick up the story and presented in a way that everything we our self have to assume. What if I am a lame person and don't know what happens in Africa time to time?? I think a movie should be a complete package. For example, during the Most Gritty & Important scene, when gangster kids enter Manuel's house and on hearing Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle) waking up they run off. Manuel then follows them in the jungle and then Manuel injure his foot and suddenly in a Snap we see African Gansta kids holding Manual's head and snatching his chain, cutting his hairs with machete, after that they leave him entirely naked in the fields. I didn't get the editing in the scene, at one second the kids were far away looking at him turning back home and in the next scene they were holding him down. (WHY we have to suppose they suddenly grape him). After that the drastic behavior of the Manuel is understandable to an extent but there have been many scenes where the Editing has been roughly done like that even in the Last Scene we see Maria (Isabelle Huppert) coming towards her house, then in Next Second she is on top of storage room and sees her Son's body Burned Alive and in next second she is Killing her father-in-law with machete because she believes he is the reason she has spend all her life in Africa (That's what I got from the ending, I really have to search more to get what does that meant). So, the whole movie moves with a very slow pace and then in important scenes it move like Flash speed. That was Annoying!! Isabelle Huppert was excellent though it requires smart thinking to appreciate her performance, because she is not the women we see and meet in our daily life. She is strong, stronger than Men actually. Nicholas Duvauchelle is Amazing; he is a French ALEX PETTYFER, smart, bold, sexy and super talented. Overall, watch it for some really smart moments and Isabelle Huppert & Nicholas Duvauchelle Brilliant performance.
How does a country descend into civil war, and from there, to genocidal slaughter? Some of the most terrible stories of recent years come from Africa (poverty being one obvious driver) and this film, like the more famous 'Hotel Rwanda', is set in such terrain. I personally found the latter film unsatisfactory, as it told a story of basically good people attacked, in effect, by mindless zombies: 'White Material' is better at giving a portrait of life in a society where the pillars of order are crumbling, and thereby offers a more convincing narrative as to how the bonds of normal human decency might break. It also offers an interesting perspective by looking at events from the viewpoint of white farmers: not evil per se (although the film doesn't make them particularly sympathetic), but owning too many resources in a land that sees that claim to title as rooted in the colonial past. What doesn't work, for me, is the particular plot: while the mood of the characters, and of their world, is well created, the details of the situation remain unclear: who does what to who, and why, remains frustratingly enigmatic. Isabelle Huppert is good in the lead role; but the absence of a black African in a role of matching prominence is arguably a weakness, the murder goes on and the explanation is never quite forthcoming. Perhaps that's asking too much of a mere movie: if the explanation was obvious, the world would not have to endure so much pointless suffering.
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