Claire Denis' strongest movie in the decade since Beau Travail, her 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.
White Material is impressionistic yet tactile — Denis presents an unclear situation with gorgeous immediacy. It's as though, working with new DP Yves Cape, she has rediscovered film as film (as opposed to the more conventional narratives of 35 Shots of Rum, The Intruder, and Friday Night). White Material, which was shot in Cameroon, has an urgent lyricism predicated on fluid jump cuts, jittery camera moves, and extreme close-ups. This composition in continuous crisis and continual dread, written with Prix Goncourt–winning novelist Marie N'Diaye, is at once pre- and postapocalyptic.
The first movement is boldly achronological. Denis 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 as, traversing an enigmatic shifting terrain, Maria simultaneously flees from and returns (or rereturns) to the place she calls home. 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." An abandoned church is filled with fly-covered corpses. Armed child soldiers creep down from the hills to explore Maria's house while she vainly begs her workers to remain for the coffee harvest.
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 (and even bring in the harvest) by herself and yet can't face the reality of her situation. Alone in her incongruous pink calico frock, absolute in her rejection of France, she's protected by her craziness — but only up to a point. Her ex-husband, André (Christophe Lambert), negotiates behind her back to sell the plantation. Her father-in-law (Michel Subor) is an invalid. Her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is an indulged, indolent princeling who sleeps through half the movie before waking up in a mad martial trance, like the surfer-soldier in Apocalypse Now — a movie that, in its imperial hubris and hallucinatory jungle madness, seems to haunt White Material. There are intimations of Jonestown as well — Denis' verdant death-trip is rendered additionally lysergic by a spacey Tindersticks score.
To a degree, White Material is founded on a familiarity with the otherness of others, as well as recognition of one's own otherness. (Denis was raised in French colonial Africa and has set several previous movies there; N'Diaye, the daughter of a French mother and Senegalese father, grew up in France.) But the movie's refusal to tether its action to a particular time or place gives White Material a disturbing, ahistorical universality. It's as though Denis were reimagining Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a chaotic, postcolonial race war in which the river reverses course: The continent's lush, fecund savagery floods "civilization" to reclaim its own, including, in the end, Maria's mind.
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.
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