“White Material” screens at UWM
“Extreme blondness brings bad luck. It cries out to be pillaged. Blue eyes are troublesome.”
A strange, impalpable terror hangs thick in the air throughout Claire Denis’ new film White Material. It opens in darkness; a single light probes an empty, disheveled home. The light searches until it finds a dead soldier. He is the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), the leader of the rebel movement in this unnamed francophone African country. The Nationalist soldiers who have been tracking him stand around silent, almost reverent, while the Boxer stares into space, blood encrusted on his torso. But as as the viewer soon realizes, the film begins nearly at the chronological end of the story.
The radiant Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, a French woman running a coffee plantation in this war-torn country on the brink of chaos. Child soldiers roam the countryside, rifles in hand, while Maria stubbornly continues to manage the plantation which belongs to her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert). Even as lawlessness creeps over the landscape, she heedlessly tends to the crop without Andre’s help, steadfast in her belief that danger cannot reach them.
This is a clear example of the subtly entrenched yet unexamined feelings of superiority that motivate many of her character’s actions. Maria ignores the friends, acquaintances and workers who implore her to leave. One of the first images we see is a member of the French army screaming from a helicopter for her to evacuate immediately, since the last of their ranks are heading out. She gives them the finger. The helicopter flies away, littering the ground with survival kits that Maria stubbornly kicks away, muttering “These dirty whites, we risk our lives for them…they don’t deserve this beautiful land. They can’t appreciate it.”
She aligns herself with the Africans while disassociating herself from her whiteness which, in her pink dress, shines like a beacon on the lush countryside. Even when she gets an unambiguous death omen in the form a calf’s severed head, she simply buries it.
Maria’s aversion to leaving is a clever and skillfully handled characterization of unchecked white privilege. Her refusal to relinquish the land (which, in the ensuing civil war signifies power more than ever) which she doesn’t even own is bewildering and foolish.
Denis is no stranger to African themes. It is not only the setting of many of her films, but Denis has lived in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Cameroon (the setting for her incandescent debut film Chocolate). And yet, White Material does not pretend to speak for Africa. It merely frames its complexities through the expatriate, post-colonial worldview of Maria, shaped by her blind courage, her obstinacy and her inability to see her own veiled sense of superiority.
Denis brilliantly removes the film from intellectual loftiness and repositions it as a meditation on these problems rather than as a prescription for them, neither condemning Maria’s situation or provides any solutions for it. She lets us figure it out for ourselves, putting much trust and faith in her viewers – a characteristic move for her.
That is not to say that Denis makes you work for the whole film. Despite the realistic and all-too-poignant subject matter, there are numerous moments when she shows us nothing short of staggering beauty with her varied camera work, expansive panoramic shots of the African countryside and a crushing sensitivity for her characters, particularly the child soldiers.
White Material a testament to the idea that one can find beauty anywhere, and Denis has found it in an unlikely place. It is a beautiful, bloody and dirty masterpiece.
White Material screens Feb. 25-27 at the UWM Union Cinema. For more information, click here.