White Material

Director: Claire Denis
Adaptation: Claire Denis (scenario by Claire Denis and Marie N’Diaye)
Stars: Isabelle Huppert (Maria Vial), Christophe Lambert (André Vial), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Manuel Vial), Isaach De Bankolé (The Boxer), William Nadylam (Chérif), Adèle Ado (Lucie), Ali Barkai (Jeep), Daniel Tchangang (José), Michel Subor (Henri Vial)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2009
Country: France / Cameroon
White Material Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
White MaterialClaire Denis’s White Material is a depiction of futile resistance in the face of unstoppable change. Set in an unnamed African country, the film stars Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, whose family has owned a coffee plantation in said country for decades. The plantation is not in her name--it is actually the property of her ex-husband’s family--but she manages it and has come to see it as an extension of herself; thus, even though the country is quickly devolving in chaos around her, with the country’s military battling against a growing rebel insurgency, she refuses to leave, insisting that they finish the harvest lest they lose that year’s crop.

As written by Denis from a scenario she developed with novelist and playwright Marie N’Diaye, White Material is a tricky film--narratively, emotionally, and ideologically. For somewhat vague reasons, Denis tells the story in a temporally fragmented form, starting at the beginning and then rewinding, with much of the film’s story being shot through with unmarked flashblacks that seem to bleed into the present-tense narrative. Astute viewers will be able to put most of the pieces together, although Denis leaves us with a shockingly unexpected last act that is either some kind of perverse expression of courage or the final ascent and victory of sheer madness. How you read the film’s final images will have much to do with how you understand the film as a whole.

This is where it becomes ideologically tricky, because any film featuring a white, European protagonist trying to hold onto her family’s land in Africa is immediately fraught with all kinds of political implications owing to the violent legacy of colonialism. Maria is the film’s protagonist, and we follow her efforts from beginning to end; our ingrained understanding of how movies work encourages us to root for her and celebrate her tenacity, but should we? She is, along with her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert) and her ex-father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), representatives of that colonialist legacy, and their desire to hold onto the land despite the civil war raging around them could be seen as courageous, or it could be seen as sheer madness, or it could be seen as an extended metaphor for the resistance of Europeans to let go of that which their ancestors forcibly took generations ago (the “white material” of the title).

In a sense it is all three, although the “courage” and the “madness” are essentially intertwined. There is something admirable about Maria, especially as played by Huppert, but her efforts feel misplaced, especially since the film makes it clear again and again that the coffee plantation is not even profitable any more. However, because she has been there so long and has grown to love the land and feel that she is a part of it, leaving (which is the sensible thing to do) would be like losing a part of herself. From an external perspective, her actions make no sense except as obsession; but, when you consider her interiority, her familial and emotional ties to the plantation, there is nothing else she can do (it is in this regard that her not owning the plantation is crucial, because it essentially eliminates economic concerns).

The film has been criticized in some quarters for playing into stereotypes about Africa as the “dark continent”--a scary, undeveloped land filled with violence and upheaval, made all the more so due to the unnamed nature of the country (although Clair has said that she was primarily inspired by events that took place in Ivory Coast). The film’s ahistorical approach means that its depiction of one small part of Africa could easily stand in for the entire continent and its history. Yet, such criticisms miss the mark because the violence is not just of the Africans’ making. Rather, it is a product of the colonialist legacy at the film’s core, and while Denis doesn’t directly point fingers, she does offer numerous oblique references to white European privilege at the expense of Third World nations (best exemplified in an early scene in which Henri soaks in a bathtub, largely oblivious--or uncaring--about what is happening just outside his front gates). Most directly, Denis depicts Maria’s teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) as a lazy, self-absorbed sloth whose humiliation at the hands of several African rebels pushes him into an inexplicable form of madness that trumps everything else that is going on. He is, like the plantation, something that Maria “will not give up on,” but both are essentially out of her control, which is her tragedy.

A civil war may be raging, children are being armed, and slaughter is taking place, but at no point does Denis suggest that this is somehow “inherent” to Africa. Having grown up in French West Africa (she lived there for the first 13 years of her life), Denis has direct experience with the complexities of colonialism and the relationship between Europeans who call Africa “home” and the native peoples (this is the third of her films to be set entirely in Africa, following her 1988 debut Chocolat and 1999’s Beau travail). Rather than flattening the African people into a faceless mass, she gives us several native characters, including a wounded rebel leader called “The Boxer” (Isaach De Bankolé) and several young children, with whom we can identify and sympathize even as we recoil at some of the measures that are being taken. White Material is thus a difficult film, and one that sticks with you, pestering you with its unresolved tensions.

White Material Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
White Material is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioFrench DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Video interview with director Claire Denis
  • Video interview with actress Isabelle Huppert
  • Video interview with actor Isaach de Bankolé
  • Short documentary by Denis on the film’s premiere at the 2010 Écrans Noirs Film Festival in Cameroon
  • Deleted scene
  • U.S. theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film writer Amy Taubin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 12, 2011

    Criterion’s high-definition transfer of White Material was made from a 35mm interpositive under the supervision of director Claire Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape. The transfer does an excellent job of handling the film’s varied visual approaches, which range from the near pitch blackness of night to the scorched tones of equator-level heat and sunshine during the day. The vast majority of the film was shot with natural light, and the transfer handles its intensities beautifully, maintaining a gorgeous, filmlike appearance that enhances Denis’s almost documentary-like approach. The lossless DTS-HD surround soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files, is also excellent, with great fidelity and attention to detail.
    While there is no audio commentary, Criterion had recorded three exclusive video interviews that help flesh out the film’s production and intentions: one with writer/director Claire Denis (24 min.), one with actress Isabelle Huppert (14 min.), and one with actor Isaach de Bankolé (13 min.). Of particular interest is a short documentary that Denis made about the film’s premiere at the 2010 Écrans Noirs Film Festival in Cameroon, where the film was shot. Also included is a deleted scene in which Marie finds André murdered and the U.S. theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © IFC Films and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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