REVIEW: White Material [2010]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: March 24th, 2010 (France)
Studio: Wild Bunch Distribution / IFC Films
Director(s): Claire Denis
Writer(s): Claire Denis & Marie N’Diaye

“Because of people like you, this country is filthy”

There is definitely something about director Claire Denis, something great. I can’t say I’m a professional, having only experienced my first Denis work last year with 35 Rhums, but after seeing White Material, there is no doubt she’s a force. The pacing, the sumptuous and mesmerizing score, the lingering camera on expressive faces, the frame bobbing up and down with a sense of being in the action—and yet the action itself is subtle, deliberate. There are definite stylistic comparisons and I’d be surprised if her earlier work doesn’t contain the same feel too. Denis has an eye for the beautifully tragic, a deft handle on her actors’ performances, and the ability to say so much with so little. We don’t know why the African town White Material inhabits is at civil war; we don’t know why the army and the rebels have decided anyone caught in the crossfire isn’t worth a second glance or a compassionate reprieve. This is a land at war as hungry, misguided children fight trained militia. The world is crumbling and as a result the Vial family have become strangers in their own home.

Vial Café has been a plantation at work for a generation, passed down from the ailing Henri (Michel Subor), to his son André (Christopher Lambert) and former daughter-in-law Maria (Isabelle Huppert). It is all Maria knows, it is her life and no amount of threats or danger from the warring sides converging will make her leave. The French army yells to tell her they are evacuating, that she is going to be left all alone; her workers and foremen have all quit, speeding away on their motorbikes to keep a safe distance from the ‘white material’ that has fallen completely out of favor; and her husband has inquired with the local government, Mayor Chérif (William Nadylam), about selling the land—worthless without the present harvest—to get out of town with his life. Friends in town warn Maria to leave, afraid their own security won’t protect them from the rebel contingent; André’s new wife and son, both black, know what’s coming and gain distance from the plantation; it becomes stubbornness and blind faith that keep the Vials rooted, a fearless pride taking over where intelligent acceptance of their status in Africa should be.

We’re shown glimpses of what is to come when the film opens. Maria is stranded and afraid as she gets on a bus going in the direction of her home—why, we don’t know. The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), in charge of the rebel forces is dead in bed, gun in his hand, but not cocked for a trigger pull. And a bald, tattooed white male is shirtless and coughing in a building on fire that’s filling with smoke, an army man shutting the door to trap him. It is quite the inflow of information in an insanely short amount of time, all set up to intrigue and captivate before we go back in time as Maria remembers what got her on the bus in the first place. Memories of The Boxer taking refuge on the plantation, his uncle a regular visitor and friend to the Vials; glimpses of Maria training new hires to harvest and wash the coffee while her husband’s new son watches the people in the house turn to the dark side of insanity; and the horrific visages of two boys with machetes, not even ten years old, trespassing and threatening to send Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle)—Maria and André’s son together—into the afterlife are shown.

There is darkness in Africa that is causing anyone without a gun to fear for his/her life. Citizens of all colors are terrorized, listening to updates about what is happening from a radio DJ facilitating his politics. Roadblocks are created by men who were once known in the community, ex-teachers and neighborhood boys turning to the gun and threatening death for 100-dollar bills to cross. But, it’s a fickle attitude, there is no real strength of character to these kids as they’ll force payment one-way and aren’t bothered coming back as they sit and rest with a bottle of alcohol at the side of the road. The army has their hands tied, unable to really show authority when kids without are ruling the streets. When they get to town, however, they are vicious in their cleanup, stopping buses, kicking down fences, and slitting throats. There is no reason the Vials should still be there, whether it’s home or not. Even Chérif tells Maria in a flashback that although Manuel was born and raised on the land, the land didn’t appear to want him.

Not only do the Vials have to fear outside forces, though, they must take into consideration their own flesh and blood too. Lambert holds his shifty grin as he hides secrets from his ex-wife, Subor acts as though he is above heinous activity taking his baths and walking his land as if he owns the country and is entitled, and Duvauchelle changes from distant and lazy to psychotic and unpredictable once he experiences his own brush with mortality. Fate is a huge factor in the story, hubris being repaid with blood. The tension builds as the guerilla warfare progresses closer and closer to the plantation. Word comes out that The Boxer is hiding there and both sides converge to create a shocking ending in its brutality and in the characters that find the capacity to take life. It’s a final pair of unforgettable sequences that stick, close-up examples of rage and sorrow transposed onto the actor you’d assume would be feeling the opposite emotion. The tension swells to a crescendo only to be released at the cut to black, leaving you with the chaos and forcing you to accept the bleak outcome devoid of hope.

[1] Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria Vial in IFC Films’ White Material (2010)
[2] Isaach De Bankole in IFC Films’ White Material (2010)
[3] William Nadylam stars as Cherif le Maire in IFC Films’ White Material (2010)

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