White Material (2009)

Directed by Claire Denis. Written by Marie N’Diaye, Lucie Borleteau and Claire Denis.

Colonialism comes to a damning end in Claire Denis’ White Material, as a French woman takes a delusional stand against the tides of time and refuses to uproot from her coffee plantation in an African country as the bloodshed of a raging civil war draws ever nearer.  

It seems everyone but she knows of the inevitable: the transmissions on the radio tell of rebels’ progress, the French military are pulling out, and they urge her to do so as well as they circle overhead in a helicopter, afraid to even touch down. Her employees leave, knowing they’ll soon not be able to. Her own husband, behind her back, tries to arrange their passage out and the sale of the plantation. He’s beyond trying to talk sense to her. Yet, all she can think of is the harvest that she insists will only take one more week. There’s clearly something else that’s keeping her in place and it’s harder to forgive than naïveté.

White Material is a ghost story of sorts. A story of the damned, Denis’ film is filled with an eerie silence and despondent attitude. Despite the urgency of the harvest, little work is done. Instead, people roam the fields, laze about indoors, or take stock of what’s left of life. Those who remain cannot leave, or in the case of Isabelle Huppert’s Maria, won’t leave. As the matriarch, she scrambles to hold everything together, but it all has the feeling of a person bailing water from a boat that’s already an inch submerged. It’s folly, but you can’t bring yourself to pity her.

The score by frequent collaborator Stuart A. Staples of Tindersticks is nervy, melancholy and downbeat. A score for the pained aftermath of great upheaval. Her shots are less poetic compared to some of her earlier work but instead there’s a prosaic quality to them. The storytelling has a matter-of-factness, telling us not a story of how these people are undone by their own actions, but by the accumulated debt of their colonial heritage. 

Nicolas Duvauchelle is Maria’s layabout son, a loafer and listless wastrel made so by being given everything in life. When you see how Maria fiercely defends him from criticism, you can understand why he is that way. Maria is blind to her own nature as well. Throughout, she clings to a notion that they have roots here, have raised their own kids in this land, and as such, have every claim to stay. If you draw enough blood from the land, you are of the land, she seems to think. 

How can they not be damned? It’s with this conviction Denis tells her story with a confident grace, and it makes for a gripping, at times sensuous, and hard-hitting film about colonialism’s deluded self-perception. In its center, Huppert gives one of her finest performances as an irredeemable woman and a manifestation of gormless oppressors who have bought into their own false narrative to the point where they no longer see themselves as such. 

White Material is a movie that could have been hellfire and brimstone, an angry condemnation of its characters with befitting punishment. While sinners are not left unscathed, White Material lets their fate feel more like a natural conclusion to their arc, and the power of it reverberates beyond what angry polemic could ever accomplish.   

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