Modern-day Africa, year unspecified. The region in which French-born Maria (Isabelle Huppert) looks after her family’s longstanding coffee plantation is overrun by a bloody civil war. Workers flee the area in fear, as a patrolling militia clashes with a rebel army (containing many children) led by the charismatic ‘The Boxer’ (Isaach de Bankolé).
The first half of the story unfolds in a fragmentary flashback as Maria tries to hitch a ride home by bus. She is unaware that, in the present, her son-in-law, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), has become deranged. In the flashback, Maria tries desperately to persuade her workers and foremen to stay on. A pirate radio DJ speaks against the colonial oppressors and urges on the rebels. Maria’s ex-husband and Manuel’s father, André (Christopher Lambert), tries to make a protection deal with the local major, Chérif (William Nadylam), who has a private army. André’s father, Henri (Michel Subor), wanders around the grounds, refusing to leave.
All of Claire Denis’ films aspire to a crystalline purity. Even when packed with the stuff of social and political unrest – war, murder, racial tension, unemployment, refugees, families in crisis – her films give the sense of having dropped, in the course of their elaboration, whatever message they may have intended at the outset.
What remains, in the end, is a cryptic, complex diagram of bodies and desires, environments and landscapes, confrontations and evasions, things said and unsaid. At its best (Beau travail, Friday Night, 35 rhums), Denis’ cinema is compelling in its skeletal purity, beckoning viewers to enter the work and fill the gaps with their own imaginations. When less successful (as in Nenette and Boni), the films can seem thin and strained.
White Material is at once an extremely physical and an utterly abstract political melodrama. Working for the first time with novelist Marie N’Diaye rather than her usual script collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis deliberately makes it impossible for us to gauge the exact year in which the action unfolds, or even the precise location in Africa. The situation that is so vividly sketched – rebels versus militia, as workaday citizens flee for their lives and are often caught in the crossfire – would appear to be an amalgam of many moments in contemporary history: Rwanda, Angola, Indonesia …
The conflict is, to use a much-abused word, universal: Denis aims for a level of generalised metaphor, but always through very precise, concrete details. Denis is careful, too, to not take sides, at least on the most obvious level of the dramatisation: only in fleeting moments like the final shot (when a soldier secretes the red beret which is the memoir-token of The Boxer) do we feel her natural sympathy for the rebels emerge.
Of course, Africa has special and specific significance for Denis, as her debut feature Chocolat, which took off from autobiographical experience, announced: its culture, and its transnational mutations, form a constant presence and reference in her work. As always, Denis takes an oblique rather than frontal angle on this nation and its vicissitudes; she truly puts the post into post-colonial, as the primal scene of colonial encounter and trauma is never quite as intriguing to her as the often subtle aftershocks of a faded imperial expansion.
Hence, the story here – and certainly the power-play of white dominating black – is virtually over as soon as it begins, the ‘white material’ (the title refers to a cigarette lighter) already in tatters: we first see Maria alone on a road, already divested of whatever colonial aura she once may have possessed, and from that point the action (such as it is) is a bleak body-countdown to total devastation. Yet the actual depiction of violence is restrained, unspectacular, almost Bressonian: blood is not what bursts from sudden wounds, but that which seeps slowly through clothes (as it does for The Boxer), or children listlessly bathe in.
Maria might seem to be a distant relative of Bette Davis in any number of 1930s and ‘40s melodramas, or the heroine of Doris Lessing’s classic novel The Grass is Singing (filmed by Michael Raeburn, with Karen Black in the lead role, in 1981), which Huppert initially wanted Denis to adapt. The film focuses on Maria’s determination and perseverance, but it is very far from romanticising her: Maria’s stubborn wilfulness and her blindness to the social situation around her – not to mention its horrible effects on everyone that is close to her – create a bubble around this character, and we are invited to take up a critical distance rather than empathise.
Curiously, the ultimate tone of the piece, at least on an intellectual plane, is closer to Richard Fleischer’s much-derided Mandingo (1975) than most melodramas centred on plucky women: in a Denis diagram, typically, we watch all the figures flail around inside the contradictions of their personal and social positions. An emblematic character, in this respect, is Henri, who, while representing the imperial patriarch taking up space in a foreign land, is an oddly passive, even benign presence (frequently seen near-naked) who speaks of Africa as the only true home he has ever known – and, indeed, all references to France in the film conjure it as some ghostly, unimaginable, lost point of origin for these ‘white materials’.
Ultimately, Denis presents a ‘history of violence’ that has more in common with Lord of the Flies (novel or films), or Philippe Grandrieux’s paroxysmic La vie nouvelle (2002), than a typical Hollywood melodrama past or present: violence is a contagious, dehmanising force that sweeps everybody up in its psychotic madness, especially the troubled young Manuel (Duvauchelle incarnating a character that would have been played for Denis in the ‘90s by Grégoire Colin). At the symbolic centre of this maelstrom is the fascinating, mostly silent, largely inactive, brooding figure of The Boxer, who – like Ben Gazzara in one of Denis’ favourite films, Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1978) – seems to be virtually a dead man from the first moment we glimpse him, his life draining away. He is in the process of passing over into the realm of myth, as a similarly wounded Johnny Depp did in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).
White Material is a confident but not completely satisfying effort from Denis. One feels a tension between its status as a star vehicle – even in the case of a star as artistically savvy as Huppert, who is superb here – and the usual ensemble-driven proclivities of the director. Passages where the plot wanders away from Maria (such as in the scene of Manuel’s brutalisation at the hands of two kids), breaking with her narrative point-of-view, are among the film’s best; Denis’ relief at being able to stage her usual explorations off the linear track of the story is palpable.
Yet these divagations do not manage to weave the sort of polyphony (in both image and sound) that, at its height, brings Denis (especially in Beau travail) close in artistry to Terrence Malick; the fuller pattern that might have emerged from a freer treatment feels shrunken, truncated. An early scene is indicative of the both the promise and the problems of the project: Maria on a motor bike joins a long line of such movement-images in Denis’ work, but the depiction of the character’s exhilaration (hands thrust in the air, wind in her face) tends to rather weary cliché.
Although White Material achieves the director’s trademark dreamy, watery fluidity – coaxing even the worst sticklers for narrative clarity to go with the flow and ignore the strict demarcations between past and present, reality and fantasy – its structure is not half as daring as, say, that of L’intrus, where (as Raúl Ruiz would say) the images created the narrative, rather than vice versa. Denis does manage to employ the casual, even brutal form of exposition that suits her best: crucial information is conveyed on the fly, in glimpsed details (the survival kits strewn on the ground after a helicopter passes) or mysteriously brief, unanchored insertions of voice-over commentary (as when two unidentified locals discuss the white population).
However, like all Denis films, White Material repays repeat viewings, and grows with them. Not only do the more obscure or offhand pieces of the plot make more sense a second or third time around, but also the already-thick mood deepens and expands. Denis is a master of rhythm – here, an oceanic, slow throb held over a remarkably sustained feature-length time – and of the fusion of image and music. The score by Tindersticks (frequent collaborators with Denis) is reminiscent of Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’ music for John Hillcoat’s savage Australian Western The Proposition (2005): violin, harmonium and plucked strings pursue a hypnotic, cyclical succession of chords.
The film admirably conveys, both in its overall structure and its incidental details, the vision of a society in disarray, flying apart at every seam: in Denis’ Africa, there is no place like home.
MORE Denis: Trouble Every Day
© Adrian Martin May 2010