White Material

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Dead people (black and white) walking (under harsh West African sun)

Jul 7, 2011 (Updated Jul 12, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:music, Bankolé, interviews, DVD transfers

Cons:difficult to care what happens to most the characters (except Bankolé's)

The Bottom Line: Not as opaque as "L'intrus" or as ravishing as "Beau travail"


In puzzling over Claire Denis’s 2004 film "L'intrus" (The Intruder), I wrote: “There are French film-makers who provide what might be considered superfluous (but very literary) voice-over explanations of what they are showing (Jean Cocteau, for instance), but there are more who have no interest in providing explanations of motivation for characters. Denis is very much in the latter group, influenced by the nouvelle roman, I think.” She again showed a lack of interest in providing viewers information about how the stubborn characters in “White Material” (2009) got to be so fatally intractable: both the pale Frenchwoman, Marie (Isabelle Huppert) who refuses to flee as a civil war flows into the coffee plantation she defends, determined to get the beans harvested come hell or high blood. Similarly, the viewer must guess what made “the Boxer” take up arms to attempt to overthrow the government. Because the charismatic Isaach De Bankolé (the multingual Ivory Coast actor who was the very hunky lead in Denis’s first film, the 1988 “Chocolat” and has been in four Jim Jarmusch films) plays the part, I assume his cause is just, the government a typical African kleptocracy.

I wish the movie were more about the Boxer and the suave local mayor Chérif (William Nadylam), less about the white family: the  dying patriarch Henri Vial (Denis regular [Beau travail, L’intrus] Michael Subor), his son who wants out, André (Christopher Lambert) who is Maria’s ex-husband, and their son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle, who  was in “Beau Travail” too) whom I see as not just a slacker, but psychotic. (Chérif comments about Manuel: “"This is his country. He was born here. But it doesn't like him.") Since Marie does not have an opinion of her son much higher than mine of Chérif’s, I don’t see why she stays on to protect his inheritance. Marie is in a desperate situation but her desperation seems independent of it, that is, to pre-exist the present troubles in the unnamed west African country (a blend of the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, filmed in Cameroon).

Marie is brave, but for what? Normality is a delusion and her heroism saves no one. Indeed, she casually endangers the lives of her workers. And never seems to give a thought to the likelihood of being raped (cf. "Disgrace") or of being slashed by the machetes of the child “soldiers.”

Huppert is a very brave actress (not only here, take for example the abortionist she played in Claude’s Chabrol’s "Story of Women") , a movie star totally unconcerned with appearing glamorous (she almost  puts on lipstick at one point, but goes through the whole movie without makeup, and is dressed as a worker in the field most of the time. (The flashbacks don’t reach back to her life before marriage, or, life before divorcing and not leaving).

She is shown on a bus, trying to get back to the plantation, having flashbacks that are not in chronological order (or, indeed, any order I can decode). She has several lengthy speeches (to Manuel, to the workers she hires), but there are long stretches without dialogue.

The Criterion bonus features at least made clear to me the model for the boxer. Denis, Huppert and Bankolé convinced me that the harshly shot movie was better than I thought while watching it. (Bonus features often have this effect on me, though in theory I believe that explication of intentions that were not clear from viewing the film are suspect.) Bankolé speaks in English, Denis and Huppert in French btw.

The harsh equatorial light was all that Yves Cape (Humanité, The Buffalo Boy)  had to work with, since the lights were held up in customs   until late in the filming. (Denis’s usual cinematographer, Agnès Godard was unavailable for shooting in Africa). Tindersticks provided very effective music. Its lead singer Stuart A. Staples received composer credits (also in Denis’s interview).

©2011, Stephen O. Murray


Recommend this product? Yes


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