Isabelle Huppert stars – in the truest sense of the word – as Maria Vial, de facto manager of her ailing ex father-in-law’s coffee plantation, a once thriving operation complete with tenet houses, scores of eager laborers and the large, clanging machinery of agricultural industry. For years, the Vial Plantation was a shining beacon of commerce in the dark, arid vastness, but those days are long gone, as the most recent generation has decided that growing coffee is far beneath them. In this film, European men are portrayed as slightly less than useless, and that aspersion extends to the Vial clan as well. Maria’s former husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) has been virtually disowned due to his new marriage to a local woman (Adele Ado) and Maria’s 20-ish son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a pampered lay-about who seems firmly convinced that any attempt at physical labor would immediately kill him. Thus, command of the failing enterprise has fallen on Maria’s slender but determined shoulders, albeit at the worst possible time.
Much of the credit must go to Huppert, who conveys more emotional turmoil with her chin than most actors can evoke with their entire bodies. Not since Heaven’s Gate 30 years ago, has Huppert taken a role so wholly dependent on her unique physicality. In an early scene, Huppert desperately clings to the side of a rusty, overcrowded bus in a life-or-death attempt to escape the advancing rebels. Her tiny arms bulge from the strain as her body is engulfed in a hot, dry wind, manifesting not only her character’s fierce determination but also her stubborn resistance. She had been offered more comfortable seating on top of the bus, but that would mean fraternizing with her former workers as equals. For the proud Maria that is a bridge too far, even in a world gone mad.
The transfer, in 2.35:1 and personally supervised by Denis and cameraman Yves Cape, is of astonishing depth and clarity, and represents another first rate effort by Criterion. Somehow, Denis and Cape make the dominant tones of beige and umber seem like exciting, vibrant new colors. It’s as if the design of the African wilderness had been color-cued from Huppert’s auburn tresses, creating an ironic visual harmony for this story of societal chaos. To those who denigrate Blu-ray and proclaim that watching movies on cell phones is the wave of the future, we proudly submit this gorgeous disc in rebuttal.
The mix is crisp, clear and exceedingly well balanced. And it provides a perfect platform for Stuart Staples’ thoroughly modern but haunting score, as mournful cellos evoke the tortured weeping of the sun-baked African plains.
Despite it’s time-shifting storyline and exotic locale, White Material retains many comforting attributes of familiarity. Indeed, in this age of rapidly accelerated political change, the film’s occasional, and more than passing, resemblances to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now do not seem like mere coincidence. Claire Denis’ film bears witness to the death rattles of colonization, and the viewer is thrust into the center of the conflict, but from a uniquely non-judgmental perspective. If the West’s misadventures in the developing world have taught us anything, it’s that often there’s no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. And, as Denis and Huppert brilliantly make clear, sometimes it’s best to drop your coffee beans and run like hell.