Claire Denis's tense, convulsive White Material is a portrait of change and a thing of terrible beauty. The time is unspecified. The subject is the collapse of an unnamed West African state, and the protagonist, Maria, a French settler unflinchingly played by Isabelle Huppert, is the proprietress of a family-run coffee plantation. A composition in continuous crisis and continual dread, White Material begins at the end, with Maria's plantation in flames and a revolutionary hero known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) an already cold corpse. Flashbacks are indistinguishable from flash-forwards. Rogue soldiers rule the roads; helicopters dispatched by evacuating French forces drop useless "survival kits." The dying Boxer scrambles through the bush to find refuge on a doomed plantation; meanwhile, his activities are the subject of menacing radio transmissions issued by a mysterious DJ who also promises that "for [European] white material the party is over." Astonishingly self-contained and remarkably girlish, Huppert anchors the movie. Maria is impossibly stubborn, apparently tireless, and totally fearless. She is resourceful enough to run a plantation by herself and yet can't face the reality of her situation. The sense of final days becomes that of final moments, with a particular way of life inexorably sloshing down the drain. As the movie's protagonist is the only European woman we see, race is continuously apparent -- she is a foreign body being expelled by her host in a bloody purge, just a bit of "white material" borne off in the raging current of history.
Fri., Nov. 26, 2010