In White Material, director Claire Denis weaves a complex cinematic tapestry out of narrative threads as coarse and dry as Isabelle Huppert’s fiery, windblown hair. Set in an African nation in the throes of civil war, the film reduces the waning days of European colonialism to a small scale story of a coffee farmer and her attempts to remain tethered to a familiar economic model in the midst of violent collapse. The film is rife with intentional geo-political vagueness; not only is the country unnamed, the precise aims of the warring factions are never defined or discussed. Both sides wear the same tattered uniforms and employ the same brutal means, creating a maelstrom of terror and confusion. The only certainty is this tortured land no longer has a status quo to defend, and the Europeans who exploited its riches will soon be caught in a crossfire that grows ever closer.
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.
Like Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah, Huppert stands stubbornly convinced that the political upheaval encircling her estate is a limited, insular affair that neither concerns nor affects the daily routine that defines her life. But by measures both strong and subtle, Denis shows us the increasingly desperate crumbling of Maria’s comfortable world. The structure of the film itself creates a disoriented vertigo, as the early reels present seemingly random events that drift unbound from chronology. Denis, who was nominated for a Golden Lion for this film, and Editor Guy Lecorne create a fluid mosaic of Maria’s past and present culled from the character’s bubbling pool of fearful memories. Amazingly, this laddered method of storytelling creates curiosity and sympathy but not a hint of narrative confusion. Indeed, Denis’ risky approach ultimately seems the perfect choice; not only is it empathic, it’s also efficient. On the macro level, Denis is able to tell a sprawling tale of political disintegration in a tidy 106 minutes, and at an intra-scene pace that rarely strays from real 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.
But White Material’s most haunting images are also its simplest, as Huppert, left alone on the plantation, frantically searches for her family amid an eerie and menacing silence. She is not yet aware of the full toll this conflict has taken, particularly on the unbalanced Manuel. As she paces the farm’s thick jungles and dusty roads, Denis’ lenses grow ever wider, reducing Huppert’s dominance of the frame and her environment. We are left only with a slight, fair-haired figure in a frilly pink dress, imperiled not only by the intense African sun, but also by sweaty, heavily armed demons – both real and imagined – hiding in the murky shadows.
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.