White Material (France/Cameroon; 100 min.)

directed by: Claire Denis
starring: Isabelle Huppert; Christopher Lambert; Nicolas Duvauchelle; Isaach De Bankolé; William Nadylam
White Material

Thom says: "With 3 musts-see involved with this project I was really excited about this world premiere. Denis was there for the Q&A but unfortunately Huppert & De Bankolé were not. I had considered Denis one of my TOP 10 LIVING DIRECTORS until very recently, but that’s another story. In this terrific film Denis revisits Africa where she grew up and where her first film CHOCOLAT takes place. But this is a far different Africa than her childhood. Colonialism rears its ugly head as well as civil and racial unrest. Huppert and her outrageously dysfunctional and unlikable family raise cotton and when the turmoil in the country becomes dangerous for all residents they are pressed to leave their farm and return to France. But Huppert refuses to go as the political climate gets worse and worse. The part is a perfect one for Huppert as no actress alive portrays wicked indifference and intractability like she does. Highly recommended! One thing is clear about the great Denis. She is a chameleon with style as none of her films seem like any of her others. 5 cats "


Chris says: "In her previous film 35 SHOTS OF RUM, Claire Denis focused on a father and daughter of African descent living in France; here, she shifts her attention to a French family who owns a coffee plantation in Africa. Whereas race and living as a minority in an adopted homeland provided only a subtext in the earlier film, it's at the dead center of this one. Maria (Isabelle Huppert), who entered this business (and continent) via marriage, manages the plantation. When the French military exits the region due to war among local tribes, she disregards their warnings to follow, determined to hold on to this life she's so invested in. Initially, her steadfastness appears admirable and brave, but as blatant hostility towards the family escalates, her actions merely seem stubborn and not without hubris (although Huppert lends her some much-needed empathy).

"While Denis rarely makes the same film twice, WHITE MATERIAL feels like a different beast for the director. For all of its expected touches (another evocative Tindersticks score, the casting of Michael Subor in a small but pivotal role), it also throws in a few curveballs such as a cinematographer other than Denis regular Agnes Godard (Yves Cape, whose hand-held work is in stark contrast from Godard's poetic, gorgeous imagery) and a far more pronounced, straightforward narrative structure. I applaud Denis for leaving her comfort zone a little, and an unnerving scene where a child army slowly emerges from the dark woods is as mesmerizing as anything in the her oeuvre--but I'd rather she kept the story more ambiguous, more mysterious. Apart from one shocking moment, we suspect what kind of finale the film is hurtling towards too far in advance. 3 1/2 cats"

Thom responds: "While I admit to not being particularly objective when it comes to Claire Denis (she’s one of my TOP 10 Living Directors), I gave this film 5 cats . I saw it before I saw 35 SHOTS OF RUM, at TIFF 2009. Denis’ 1st film CHOCOLAT has her protagonist returning to West Africa after growing up there and leaving for France. So here she goes back to Africa (which she also did in the classic BEAU TRAVAIL, although that Africa was certainly a horse of a different color), but in this latest film all romanticism is completely thrown away. Terrible racial and civil conflict rages throughout the country and into this mix a dysfunctional family to the extreme is caught in a trap with no solution whatsoever. Again, Isabelle Huppert is probably my favorite living actress, but here she plays a brash woman with no discernible likable characteristics. I never for a single moment found her brave or admirable and certainly Huppert’s superb talents bring this rather wretched woman alive. Isaach De Bankolé lends his magical talents to the film as a runaway rebel being pursued by the military. I think the film indicates the terrible situations that have arisen in many African nations where colonialists are no longer in control. And Denis has gone out of her way to paint an ugly portrait of European colonialism."

Jason says: "WHITE MATERIAL is a pretty good movie with a pretty uninspiring trailer, at least in the United States.  I don't really blame the distributor for this; Claire Denis makes films which favor character and setting over plot, but that doesn't get butts in seats unless you already know her work.  So, they try to cobble together a story, and it winds up looking like a movie about how white plantation owners are the ones who suffer during African unrest.  That's just one facet of what is, in fact, an intriguing bit of work.

"The movie opens in an interesting way, with two different scenes of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) returning to the Vial Café plantation.  In the first, she's sneaking around the landscape before finding a van; in the second, she seems carefree, riding her motorcycle.  In both, it's made clear that this African country is in the process of exploding, but Maria refuses to leave the coffee plantation so close to the harvest.  In some ways, the situation inside the gates is as volatile as outside:  Maria basically runs the business with father-in-law Henri Vial (Michel Subor) ill; she does not hold back her disappointment about her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) being a layabout.  She's actually fairly fond of José (Daniel Tchangang), the son of her husband André (Christophe Lambert) and Lucie (Adèle Ado), the housekeeper.  Maria seems to have no clue just how close the danger is, either in terms of Le Boxeur (Isaach De Bankolé), a wounded nearby rebel leader, or or a pair of child soldiers stealing supplies.

"WHITE MATERIAL could be a simple observation, but Denis and her collaborators paint a surprisingly complex and engrossing picture.  The parallel openings inform us that we are going to be bouncing around the timeline a little, informing us that this is more likely to be a film about hubris than perseverance; hitchhiking-Maria almost certainly comes after motorcycle-Maria, but by seeing her trying to sneak home first, much of the admiration we may have for her desire to stick it out is stillborn.  And while Denis doesn't fill her film with plot twists, she does fake the audience out once or twice.  She's not looking for 'gotcha!' moments, just making sure that the logical left side of one's brain doesn't wander while she feeds the emotional right.

"Much of that feeding comes from watching the cast.  Isabelle Huppert naturally takes center stage; she may not be unique in her ability to hold an audience with her performance in a sparsely-plotted film, but there are likely few trusted to do so by so many directors so often.  She's never less than fascinating here, making Maria sympathetic despite her frequently selfish motivations and all-but-delusional estimation of the siutation around her.  Huppert sells us on how Maria is not averse to physical labor or racist, but still gives her a nervousness around the lower classes.  She's harsh at times, desperate at others, but almost always intriguing.  The rest of the cast supports her nicely, from a nicely weathered Christophe Lambert - just looking at him is enough to let the audience figure out his history - to the quiet yet compelling Isaach De Bankolé.  And then there's Nicolas Duvauchelle, who builds Manuel from something easily dismissed to something fierce.

"It's not just good acting; Denis stages things well.  She and her co-writers may not necessarily follow every thread from beginning to end, or fill us in on every bit of backstory, but the characters' world seems full, with every action building on both national and personal histories.  Every setting has the right balance between showing its age and being maintained through actual use.  The incidents seem authentic without attempting to be too reminiscent on specific cases.

"Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film, though, is how Denis and company depict chaos and violence as being almost contagious, infectious things.  Most of the characters seem to be reasonable people, but as things go to hell, fight-or-flight reflexes engage, as does the need to become predator rather than prey.  That's the theme that builds as the movie goes on - violence expanding outward in all directions, until the original reasons are lost and it just becomes a mix of opportunism and blind rage.

"In the end, a story has been told, even if it's not a particularly linear or pleasant one, and told well.  It's not preachy, but it's got a definite point of view.  Individual bits of White Material don't always mean much on their own (although they more often than not do), but the full picture is quite impressive. 5 cats

"Seen 7 December 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)"