Friday, February 10, 2012

White Material (2010)

France/Cameroon, 106 minutes
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis, Marie N'Diaye, Lucie Borleteau
Photography: Yves Cape
Music: Tindersticks
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam, Michel Subor, Isaach De Bankole, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai

The premise for White Material risks easy political cliché-mongering but director/writer Claire Denis uses her concrete, allusive filmmaking to abstract and refine it until finally it begins to transmute into something very like a horror film. Its first image is jackals running across a dirt road at night, lit by the headlights of a moving vehicle, and soon after the scene is a dark bedroom in a great house, still at night, where a mysterious corpse is found, "the Boxer" according to the soldiers who discover him, caught in the probing stab of a flashlight beam. The soldiers are silent, ranged against the walls. The bedroom is filled with them.

It's the end days of the last vestiges of colonial control in an unnamed African nation. A civil war is underway and approaching its flash point, with mountain-based revolutionaries and nationalized armed forces pitted against one another and the wealthy landowners of French extraction caught between. For all intents and purposes the action in White Material takes place in the psychic span after Captain Willard's encounter with the French-Vietnamese plantation owners of Apocalypse Now Redux. The situation has grown beyond dire. The clashes have become grimly purposeful. Corpses line the roads and trails, arranged in rows with their faces to the ground. It is not a good time to have blue eyes in that country, one character tells another.


Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, who runs the day-to-day operations of a coffee plantation owned by her husband Andre, played by Christopher Lambert (or ex-husband, the relationships are complicated and murky); his father is refusing to accept the reality descending all around them. He was born and raised and lived his whole life on this plantation, on this land, in this country, and now he is an old man. It's his home and he won't leave.

Denis plunges us directly into the complexities of the situation with little explanation, only copious clues scattered along the way for us to gather like squirrels nuts. It can be confusing to take in, operating across multiple time settings. Important information is given to us before we fully understand the context, and thus it keeps us off balance and uneasy as it moves relentlessly forward. You get the feeling almost immediately that shocks are going to come. And they do.

The events happen at the edges of credibility, in a rapidly changing reality—"evolving," some might be pleased to say—where people are only just beginning to understand what they do not understand, continually overwhelmed by the shifting grounds, and surprised again and again. Early on, Maria Vial finds battery-operated radios on her property, droning an announcement to dug-in guerrillas that now is the time to come out. She shrugs it off as much as we do instinctively, even though she should probably know better. But it's too weird to believe.

Soon after a long line of child soldiers is shown marching the land. They appear to be 10 to 16 years old; they are heavily armed and strangely well-fed and fresh-faced, like a group of church youth members on a retreat who happen to be carrying assault rifles. Later a pair of them, carrying a spear and machete, enters the living quarters of the Vials. Mostly the child soldiers are astonished and uncomprehending of the way the Vials live. They sit on their couches and armchairs simply to know what it feels like. They stand in their bathtub and their muddy soles leave footprints. They enter Maria's bedroom and feel her things and steal her jewelry. All of the things they take, the valuables of the French-Africans, are spoken of derisively throughout as "white material." The disdain in which the African nationals hold the French whites, to a person, their instinctive commonality over it, is bracing.

Isabelle Huppert delivers a tour de force performance, occupying the great majority of screen time. She is steely and disturbing as she proudly keeps putting one foot in front of the other as the situations arise—paying off armed thugs to drive the roads in and out of town, hailing down packed buses in highways, confronting armed soldiers. Nicolas Duvauchelle as Manuel, Maria's spoiled son, is also outstanding. The first we see him Manuel is attempting to cope with the situation by sleeping all day, and then, after an encounter with two child soldiers who rob him and strip him naked, he goes all Road Warrior in a live disaster in the making, daring a horrible end.

Denis is instinctive about the way she puts together her film narratives, starting with her first feature, Chocolat, in 1988. That was also her first (and, until White Material, her last) story to draw on her background growing up in "colonial Africa"—Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal, and Cameroon, where White Material was shot. Chocolat also focused on the racial tensions in colonial cultures, but was somewhat more gentle about it. Denis feels her way through her stories and performances and players, and there are often pungent moments of discovery from sequence to sequence, moments coming alive suddenly in front of you, complex interrelations resolving into unexpected motivation and action. She uses broad brush strokes of mood and ambience and lets the story come to the viewer. There are long periods of silence, and long passages of visuals with no dialogue carrying the momentum and even ratcheting up the tension, also typical of Denis. Not quite two hours, it is dense and exhausting and feels long.

White Material is full of many small parts and many fine moments of performance, a mosaic assembling into a portrait, and a virtual masterpiece. The music by Tindersticks, previous collaborators with Denis on some of her most interesting pictures (Nenette and Boni, Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum), is just perfect—edgy, raw, felt on the skin. The danger  and unpleasant anxieties are palpable. It's not fun or glamorous or exciting. It's creepy, spooky, and unpleasant, shocking to its very end.

Top 10 of 2010
Well, mea culpa, alright already I have broken my rule about years as I discovered when I looked up White Material and saw that it was actually technically according to the way I said I was going to do it a 2009 release, even though I never had a chance to see it until 2011 and saw it mentioned, when I did see it mentioned, on lists for 2010, when it went wide. "Oops," as Rick Perry might say. Too late to go changin' now. I promise to stick to my own rules from now on. It's just a little confusing sorting it out in these very latter years.

Really, the top four in this list are practically interchangeable, I loved them all nearly equally and could have gone with practically any order among them on any given day. After that there's a gap for The Social Network, an inspired collaboration between Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher. And after that another gap and a handful of stuff really worth seeing. Something I read somewhere on the Internet made the case that the most interesting titles on top 10 lists are #s 6-10, because that's where people allow themselves the most relief from the pressure of consensus. I think my lists might inevitably work that way. In my first pass at a 2010 list I had The Ghost Writer at the top but a subsequent viewing disappointed me. On balance, I think #10 is about the right place for it.
1. White Material
2. Certified Copy
3. Another Year
4. Black Swan
5. The Social Network
6. Let Me In
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
8. Blue Valentine
9. Enter the Void
10. The Ghost Writer

Didn't like so much: Fair Game, Inception, The King's Speech, Shutter Island, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Gaps: Carlos; Fish Tank; Greenberg; Mother; Tuesday, After Christmas

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