White Material

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(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2009)

Promised Land

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.

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Beau travail

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(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999)

Recklessly Abandoned

“Maybe freedom begins with remorse,” former Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) ponders shortly before taking his own life. Discharged from the French military following a heinous act rooted in jealousy, the morose sergeant lives out the remainder of his banal existence in Marseilles far removed from the battalion he once led in eastern Africa. Regret consumes him, and memories of his previous, neatly ordered life fill his thoughts. Claire Denis’ Beau travail begins and ends with the wandering thoughts of this troubled, tragic figure. Somewhat of a breakthrough film for Denis, Beau travail finds the filmmaker, now an august staple of art cinema, exploring the depths of Galoup’s psyche relying very little on dialogue and expanding the possibilities of visual narrative. It also serves as a meditation on such disparate themes as abandonment, jealousy, guilt, and subtle eroticism.

Denis tells Galoup’s story through lengthy flashbacks set in the African nation Djibouti revealing the director’s penchant and knack for capturing alluring imagery. The sergeant, strictly adherent to the order of military life, strives to control everything around him. He precisely irons his clothes, meticulously sets tables for meals, and obsesses over making a neat bed. When new recruits are sent to join his legion, Galoup’s perfect world comes under attack in the form of the young, handsome, lean yet muscular, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Galoup immediately dislikes Sentain admitting envy over the soldier’s character and popularity. Despite his obvious disapproval of the new recruit, the sergeant keeps Sentain close to him at all times; whether through drills or meals, the young legionnaire remains within his grasp.

Exquisitely crafting this story, Denis opts to often imply action rather than show it – a night on the town that Galoup declares a “harbinger of things to come” finds Sentain gaining the approval of his comrades (though we don’t exactly learn why), or a cloud of orange smoke and floating wreckage stands in for a helicopter crash. Likewise, she allows tension to build using an effective, haunting down tempo soundtrack instead of through dialogue. In Beau travail, the image is king, and the filmmaker explores eroticism and potentially repressed homosexuality purely in a visual fashion. Her camera fixates on the male form whether her characters are wrestling underwater, engaged in calisthenics, digging, or showering.

When Sentain wins the approval of Galoup’s commanding officer Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) through an act of heroism, the sergeant’s jealousy is brought to its tipping point. “Sentain seduced everyone,” he later reflects. Determined to rid his battalion of the legionnaire, Galoup leads his men far from the familiarity of their base to abandoned barricades up the coast under the guise of repairing a road. Here the tension comes to a head with a literal and metaphorical standoff between the two – the camera intoxicatingly swirls around these half-naked figures set to grandiose operatic music. A fight never breaks out, but Galoup’s decision has been made and Sentain’s fate sealed. The sergeant sets a trap for the young soldier: he severely punishes a fellow legionnaire for purportedly abandoning his post one night by forcing him to dig a hole till his hands bleed. Expectedly, Sentain defies Galoup’s injustice attempting to give the man water. The sergeant kicks it away and slaps him across the face. After Sentain retaliates with a fist to the face, Galoup hurriedly drives the soldier into the middle of the desert with a faulty compass and leaves him there to die.

Court-marshaled and discharged for his action, Galoup winds up back in France and never sees his victim again. Denis relieves our anxieties by including shots of Djibouti wanderers rescuing Sentain from his inevitable death, but the sergeant is never privy to this revelation. Instead, tortured by guilt and incapable of coping having been stripped of his post, Galoup chooses to end his life. Denis ends her film with the former sergeant’s decision (off-screen) then transitions to one of the most delightfully unexpected finales in cinematic history. The filmmaker cuts from Galoup lying in bed clutching his pistol to a shot of him standing alone on the dance floor of an empty nightclub. After hesitantly folding his arms, Galoup lets loose and starts to dance. His increasingly wild moves belie the rigidity of his serious demeanor that he carries for the vast majority of the film. It’s a beautiful, if not still somewhat ambiguous, metaphor for the release of death. No longer bound by the order that ruled his actions during life, Galoup embraces the fluidity and rhythm of whatever world awaits him.

Claire Denis’ Beau travail cannot readily be reduced to one of its varying themes. In a way, this serves as one of the film’s greatest strengths. Like an intricate painting, it relies on viewer perception and interpretation of its visual narrative. Her film could be about one man’s intense jealousy that ultimately consumes him. It could be an exploration of homoeroticism and the forbidden attraction between men in the military. Or, it could be about the consequences of reckless abandonment: Galoup deserting Sentain, the military dismissing Galoup, even an abandoned continent marred by the effects of colonialism. The director explores each of these in turn and offers no conclusions. Her aesthetic is daringly unique, and Beau travail stands as an important chapter in her mighty oeuvre that continually pushes the boundary of cinematic narration.

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The Intruder

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(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2004)

Heartless

For a film as deliberately obscure as Claire Denis’ The Intruder, its provocative title proves all the more significant. Sometimes a film’s title is strictly descriptive, and other times it can provide clues with regards to a more challenging narrative, and then, in rare cases such as this, the title is yet another piece of the puzzle demanding that we engage the film with a heightened awareness. Denis’ work leads us to wonder throughout who exactly is the intruder and upon whom is he or she intruding? While Denis brilliantly provides no easy answers, her second masterpiece follows in its predecessor’s (Beau travail) footsteps; its narrative is decidedly sparse in favor of philosophically weighty themes and visual storytelling. And, while Beau travail was relatively straightforward only hinting at the abstraction Denis is capable of, The Intruder also marks another leap forward in the director’s craft in its refusal to bow to traditional narrative form.

Given its largely ambiguous and sometimes even difficult to follow premise, some viewers have found Denis’ film frustrating and pretentious, lacking the depth of her earlier works. True, it requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate what it has to offer, but this demand on her audience in no way diminishes what Denis has accomplished. Other great directors have liberally toyed with narrative form before – notably Kiarostami who regularly blends documentary and fiction, and Lynch and Weerasethakul who leave it up to their viewers to determine what actually happens and what’s imagined or dreamt – and yet there’s still nothing quite like The Intruder in all of cinema. There is a wondrous blur between the literal and figurative as Denis seamlessly weaves between the two, typically free of context. The result is a collage of images and moments that perhaps provide a window into the film’s central figure’s subconscious rather than deliver a strict account of his life.

We don’t learn much about the aging and reclusive Louis Trebor (Michel Subor) over the course of the film as he’s rarely granted much dialogue or even explicit emotional reactions, and yet the tapestry of images Denis creates provides a considerable amount of insight into what kind of man Trebor is. We know he prefers solitude to most human interaction, we know he has a son Sidney (Grégoire Colin) who he carelessly neglects, and we know he is in need of a heart transplant. The rest of what we see or that Denis hints at is speculative at best. Is he really a former mercenary? Does he really kill a man in his home after making love to his part-time lover? Does he really have an illegitimate son that he’s never met most likely residing in Tahiti? None of these questions are ever fully answered, but they form the basis for what little actual plot runs through Denis’ film.

Trebor does indeed embark on a journey to obtain a new heart on the black market in order to find and spend some time with his supposed long-lost son. The quest takes him from the French countryside to Geneva to South Korea to Tahiti where he never finds his real son but also learns that his body will likely reject his new heart. All the while Denis splices in shots of the home he left behind, mysterious and unnamed individuals breaking into homes, Trebor’s son Sidney and his family, and a young Russian woman (Yekaterina Golubeva) who initially accepts Trebor’s cash for the organ then reappears to taunt him at each stage of his journey – potentially symbolizing the inevitable rejection of the implant.

The recurring theme of intrusion is established in the film’s opening scene and remains constant throughout – drug-sniffing dogs that leap into vehicles at border patrol stations, an unexplained team of assailants seemingly bent on breaching Trebor’s wooded fortress, Sidney’s own break-in at his absent father’s home, and perhaps most mysteriously a young woman who enters a secluded shed to escape the cold and take a hot bath. And yet, the most obvious intruder is none other than Trebor’s new heart – a foreign organ that is both essential to life, yet relies entirely upon the rest of the man’s aging body to accept it. That Trebor remains the same man he was prior to his surgery, and his body’s rejection of the heart further implying that nothing has changed, proves to be a rather simple metaphor for a human heart devoid of emotion that Denis strives for, but the film’s bold execution elevates The Intruder from seemingly slight allegory. No, Denis is much too mature and nuanced a filmmaker for that.

In the end, it seems, Trebor himself may be the film’s most glaring intruder. Not only are his advances toward acquaintance and fellow dog-lover Antoinette (Florence Loiret-Caille) unwanted (not to mention his presumptuous request that she take in his pair of canines when he leaves for Korea), he shows up in a remote village in Tahiti unannounced demanding to see his son. It’s cultural and personal intrusion at its worst, and when Trebor eventually realizes the error of his ways, it’s already too late. The late-film shocker that it was his own son Sidney who was hunted down and unwillingly used for his illegal heart transplant might again be more figurative than literal, but it’s message is clear. It takes one heartless man to abandon his own dogs and an estranged son who lives nearby in order to connect with one he’s never met in some far-flung part of the world.

Of course, there’s much, much more one could glean from Denis’ work as it’s rife with beautifully symbolic imagery. She’s a remarkably skilled filmmaker whose aesthetic is surprisingly quite singular in cinema. Her fixation on the human body captured by invasive close-ups lends an intimate, sensuous quality to her work mostly unseen in the rest of art-house film. It’s also all the more fitting – like in The Intruder – when this wholly engrossing style serves the recurring themes of her work. Denis is constantly concerned with the physicality of her human characters and how it affects what transpires under the skin and within the heart. The Intruder, then, easily her finest film of this new century, is yet another essential chapter in her growing oeuvre that provides a clear window into the worldview of this great artist.

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