Dogs cross a dirt road under headlights. A flashlight searches an abandoned house to find a man in military garb, a hole in his belly, lying wide-eyed and dead on a bed. Somewhere smoke roils through darkness and flames lap at a building. A woman climbs aboard a crowded bus, the sole white face among her fellow passengers (and how white it is, sprayed with freckles, looking papery-fragile against the red dirt and harsh sun). A peculiar flashback structure reveals itself, the first 15 minutes of White Material (2009) functioning as a vestibule, along which fragmentary scenes are arranged in a seductively disorienting manner, their cryptic fluidity heightened by Tindersticks’ prowling lighthouse beam of a score. Yet everything key to the narrative has been planted herein and will unfurl and amass volume from here on, honed by actions whose savagery cannot be softened by the narcotic lyricism of their delivery.
New from Criterion, White Material is Claire Denis’ third feature depicting whites in Africa, following her autobiographical debut Chocolat (1988), and her inspired transposition of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd into contemporary Djibouti in Beau Travail (1999). Co-written with novelist Marie NDiaye, the film centers on Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), foreman of a coffee plantation in an unnamed country increasingly consumed by revolutionary (and counterrevolutionary) violence. Maria was to inherit the plantation from her ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor): she feels she belongs there, not so much entitled as embedded. When government emissaries urge her to depart (a helicopter even passes over at one point, commanding evacuation through a megaphone, raining down survival kits), Maria chooses to ignore them, staying focused on the harvest, for which she needs to rally a new group of labourers after their predecessors hastily quit: like the servants in The Exterminating Angel (1962), the staff knows it’s time to split long before the bosses. We see her speak to her black neighbours and employees as equals, blind to the fact that in their eyes the new crisis has reduced Maria to “white material,” just another vestige of the colonial past, less person than troublesome anachronism, a kind of ghost. The era that facilitated her forging a life here is rapidly closing, if not already long-gone with the wind, though Maria’s similarity to Scarlett O’Hara ends with her fierce tenacity. It’s the quality that defines her, and when it finally breaks nearly the film’s very end, it causes a violence to erupt within Maria that’s the stuff of Greek tragedy.
In keeping with its geographical ambiguity (the film was shot in Cameroon, but could be numerous places in French West Africa), White Material’s overt political scenario is largely peripheral to the main action: the child soldiers swarming the countryside, the pro-insurgent DJ narrating the rebels’ advance over the airwaves like Supersoul in Vanishing Point (1971), and, though based on Thomas Sankara, the film’s rebel leader, known only as the Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), remains a mysterious, iconic figure throughout, though, in a wonderful detail, we glimpse a tattoo on his arm that reads “Jamais K.O.” or “never knocked-out,” which seems bitterly ironic until Denis’ eloquent final image implicitly applies this bit of bravado to the spirit of Boxer’s cause, rather than his mere mortal existence. (An amusing coincidence: the name of Bankolé’s character is echoed in the matchboxes Bankolé’s nameless protagonist collects in The Limits of Control, released the same year.) But White Material’s internal politics play out vividly in the stray destinies of the Vial family. Maria’s ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert, his voice reduced to a Gallic growl since his Highlander days) has married and had a child with a black woman and lives in a house right next to Maria’s. He’s now selling off the plantation behind Maria’s back to pay off his debts. Maria and André’s son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) meanwhile has grown into a lazy, aimless young man, born and raised in Africa but an outsider nonetheless, who suddenly finds a dubious sense of purpose by identifying with the child soldiers, disposing of his blonde hair, and attempting to position himself as their prospective leader by gleefully and recklessly bribing them with goods. As with Maria’s final wrathful act, something about Manuel’s transformation feels a little more symbolic than real: our agrarian heroine’s offspring is but a different sort of bad yield. Yet I can’t honestly say that these initially jarring, metaphorically-minded dramatic shifts spoil anything essential in my deep engagement with White Material, partly because the performances of Huppert and Duvauchelle are so superb, and partly because their actions do finally feel of-a-piece in this unforgettable work from one of our greatest directors, who, as always, rigorously follows her own elliptical, idiosyncratic muse.