“White Material” Review

White Material [2009]★★★★1/2

White Material is set in one unspecified French colonial African country, and follows Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), an owner of a large coffee plantation. Well-known to the area, Maria lives on the estate with her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert), her ex-husband’s father Henri and grown-up son Manuel. However, there are signs of a revolution and violence in the area, and Maria’s plantation workers are already fleeing her farm in fear for their lives. Local gangs have already taken under their control certain areas, prompted by a local radio DJ’s slogans to fight colonialism and injustice, but Maria is not going anywhere. She has a job to do: reaping the coffee harvest. White Material is a mesmerising film and an outstanding achievement by Denis who managed to imbue her film with a mounting, at times barely perceivable, tension and claustrophobia, while also presenting a convincing portrayal of psychological denial in the background of a growing mass hysteria. The film also shines a committed performance by Huppert. Her fearless Maria is a character of great fragility and idealism – that is until “broken”, and for this to happen, it will take something more than just hearing a few gun shots in the area. Soon, however, Maria’s hopeful world-view does start to collide with the grim reality.

The story is fascinating, but it is the way Claire Denis handles the material which is so deserving of praise. Maria and her family’s vulnerability is at the core of this drama, and the camera often employs long-distance shots to show the characters appearing small in the background of all the immense nature to emphasise the insignificance of people in comparison to the wider forces, the ever-growing and worrying developments in the area. Not only is Maria’s family the only white family for miles around, but they also seem also to be the only rich people around, and their large estate with safes in it is, or should be, seen as a weak target, being so isolated. That drastic contrast between Maria and her immediate environment is often drawn to in the film. The only issue is that Maria does not realise that, or does not want to realise the danger she and her family is in. Or, if she does realise that, she does not want to show it, and behaves as though there are no rebels in the area and that no one would come to hurt them. After all, they have their small private army of hired men and guns.

The always-great Huppert underscores the helplessness, which is the theme of the film, even further. Being a slim woman, already past her prime, she encapsulates that tender fragility which is fascinating to watch. We, as the audience, fear for her, but Maria seems to be in the dark. She wants to hire workers for her plantation, provide them with food and rest, and “get on” with life. She is wilfully in the dark as to how dangerous the situation is becoming in the area. Maria does not want to take a gun with her on her trip to take Jose, her ex-husband’s child, from school, and she is in denial regarding her son Manuel, who is soon running berserk. Denis shows just how easily that appearance of a shell of protection surrounding the white privilege in Africa can break away, exposing the inner discontent of local people aware of colonialism.

Claire Denis is a clever director who knows that sometimes horror kept at a supposedly safe distance is more frightening than the one actually happening. The fear of the unknown and the unimaginable is often most potent, and thus, there is an emphasis in the film on the anticipation of a disaster, on the waiting for the inevitable, which becomes unendurably torturous, but also, intoxicating to watch. Denis is also not a director to impose her philosophy or story on the viewer: she shows a scene, or its fragments, and it is up to us to make sense of what we see, and to draw our own conclusions. In other ways too, this is also a film of signs and symbols, and the numerous objects in the film stand for something else too, for bigger concepts: coffee-beans – the invading, “unjust” capitalism, and Maria’s necklace – the white privilege few could ever afford in their lifetime, but also the bathtub filling with blood, the hair cut and sniffed, the blind love for a son gone impotent– the oncoming violence and cruelty invading so very insidiously the most intimate and privileged “parts” of a person and his life.

🌱 It is true that not everything is made as clear as it could be in White Material, but it is still a beautiful, potent and memorable film about the ever-present hidden dangers of living in a foreign and generally hostile-to-one country and wilful ignorance of colonial scars. Huppert’s interesting character is the one to remember in particular. This is someone who is blindly, but courageously, starts to handle a situation that has been doomed from the start.   


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellent review. Reminds me in a way of Nowhere in Africa”. The acting, claustrophobia/hysteria contrast, the setting…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, and yes, I think with Africa, hysteria and acting the similarities kind of end. White Material is a more visceral, uncanny experience. Claire Denis is quite clear she is certainly not there for any traditional story-telling 🙂


      1. Thanks for putting it on my radar.


  2. Jane says:

    Sounds very interesting, I’ll put it on my list, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s on the BFI player, as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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