(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2009)
Perhaps what is most impressive about Claire Denis’ late-2000s output is that 35 Shots of Rum and White Material were released merely a year apart. Both are major works in the director’s growing oeuvre, and though she must have been working on both in tandem, the two films couldn’t be more different. If 35 Shots was her most subdued work to date, her tender take on Ozu’s brand of domestic drama noteworthy for its atypical straightforwardness, then White Material is perhaps her fiercest film yet – bold in its non-linear structure, unashamedly political in its relevant subject matter, and brutal in its depiction of violent race relations in a post-colonial African nation fraught with instability. It’s fitting that Denis return to Africa for this late-career highlight, having only set her debut Chocolat and mid-career masterpiece Beau travail almost exclusively on the continent, for her increasingly visceral style and matured command of the screen fit this explosive and potentially divisive work perfectly.
The film follows the exploits of one incurably stubborn coffee plantation owner Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) who resists the encroaching civil war in an unnamed African country in the waning days of post-colonialism. Given the entire continent’s bloody history with loyalist and rebel factions vying for power in the wake of European retreat, Denis’ film really could take place anywhere. But, the specific national politics are not the point. At the film’s center is Huppert’s Maria. Not since Beau travail has a central performance in Denis’ work commanded the screen quite like Huppert here who convincingly plays a woman so lost in her own mind that she’s become oblivious to her own racial identity and shifting geopolitical allegiances, and is fiercely determined to keep her plantation running to the detriment of her workers and family. Maria loves this land and feels entitled to it. In an early scene, we see her riding a motorcycle through her property as she joyfully allows the wind to whip through her fingers only to be interrupted by a helicopter bearing French troops urging her to leave the country. Later while alone, Maria labels the fleeing Europeans as “dirty whites” who don’t appreciate or deserve the land. This failure to recognize her own hypocritical prejudice is ultimately her undoing.
While Maria focuses on keeping the plantation running the rest of the world around her crumbles. The workers abandon her and her family threatens to do the same. In typical Denis fashion, the details of Maria’s life are revealed slowly over the course of the film. The plantation technically belongs to her ex-husband’s father-in-law (Michel Subor) who, in poor health, bequeaths the land to Maria and remains cooped up in the house as a symbol of a bygone era of colonialism. Though they’re no longer married, Maria’ ex André (Christophe Lambert) also lives on the plantation and helps her raise their grown and mentally unstable son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). André insists on them fleeing and acts as a force against which Maria relentlessly pushes. All the while, a gang of rebels – made up of mostly child soldiers – encroaches on the compound, lying in wait to ambush these former acquaintances who have now become nothing more than disposable white material.
Denis makes a risky move crafting a film today about Africa, filtered through the perspective of white characters. But, she gets away with it because of her personal experience as one who grew up as a foreigner on the continent and because the film concerns a fictitious conflict. If anything, White Material is less an indictment of colonialism as it is a powerful character study of one woman touched by its effects. The other characters are key to the story and provide telling symbolism – the rebel leader nicknamed The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé) who slowly dies from a gunshot wound as if to foreshadow the rebels’ eventual demise, her father-in-law the last holdout of traditionalism, her ex-husband the fragility of the Europeans’ presence, the local mayor Chérif (William Nadylam) the future of a black-run Africa – but ultimately it is Maria’s story that we follow.
Perhaps the most significant secondary character, then, the one upon whom the narrative hinges, is Maria’s son Manuel. He is entitled and lazy, and therefore unpopular on the plantation, but his mother is quick to come to his defense. He appears ambivalent about whether they stay in Africa or return to France, but when he’s assaulted by two intruding boy soldiers, he begins to lose a grip on his sanity. He shaves his head, slings a rifle over his shoulder, threatens the house workers, and eventually deludes himself into thinking he’s the rebels’ new leader as he leads the late-film attack on his own home. Manuel is perhaps best understood as a microcosm of the plantation itself – he was born in Africa, but he doesn’t belong there; he once enjoyed a position of privilege and power, but those days are no longer and he – along with the plantation – perish at the hands of the ruling government. Thus, when Maria commits her final act of violence, she is exacting revenge not only for her dead son, but also for the loss of her promised land.
This seemingly left-field murder is reminiscent of another 2009 film’s climactic act of parental vengeance. But, while the mother-turned-sleuth in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother kills out of a desperate need to protect her son’s innocence, Maria’s murderous act is the culmination of a mind slowly rotting due to the strength of her unshakable will. Maria’s fate is intentionally left vague, but it’s clear that her Africa is no more. The days of the once mighty Vials – and their European brethren – have passed. It’s a definitive assertion, one that at first seems at odds with much of Denis’ other, more ambiguous work. Certainly, White Material is more direct than its two immediate predecessors, but Denis compromises none of the nuance, contemplative nature, or striking imagery indicative of her signature style. Claire Denis is on her way to solidifying a reputation as one of cinema’s greatest, and White Material is another near-masterstroke for this incredibly skilled filmmaker.