Sunday, February 6, 2011

White Material

     I may have named Tournée as the best French movie of the year, but Clair Denis, as always, is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to transcendent realism. Her new movie, White Material, is the story of a French coffee plantation owner who gets in way over her head as violence erupts in her unnamed African country of residence, and it's an impressive film--beautiful, frightening, and often perplexing.

This isn't the first time that Denis has entered the hazardous territory of race and cultural identity. From her first movie, Chocolat (1988), about a French woman looking back at her childhood in Africa, to last year's 35 Shots of Rum, which showed an immigrant family in France, Denis has always been interested in racial tension. After all, she herself was that white girl growing up in post colonial Cameroun, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Somalia. But here, that racial tension gets a whole lot more confrontational than I've seen from her before. France's racial divide was more of a subtext in 35 Shots of Rum, and concerns over skin color were superseded by the touching family drama. Skin color cannot be avoided in White Material; as one soldier the plantation owner, Maria (Isabelle Huppert), "your white skin and blue eyes are troublesome." He goes on to equate them with evil.

White skin is certainly not evil in Denis' eyes, but white people can be a little oblivious. The details of the political turmoil in the movie are fuzzy, but rebel soldiers led by a mysterious man called "the boxer" are moving in, some sort of civil war is starting. Everyone's leaving--even the workers on Maria's plantation know it's too dangerous to stay around and get caught in the crossfire--but Maria stubbornly refuses to give in to fear, and convinces herself that all she needs to do is harvest the next crop. She bribes the rebels blocking her road, goes to town, and hires new workers so she can keep hold of her coffee, her plantation, and the illusion that she's built for herself. There's nothing particularly wrong about any of her actions, but her judgement is off. For one, her desire to stay comes from a desire to show that she's stronger than every one else--she's a bit like a city dweller who wants to be seen as capable of "roughing it" in the wilderness. And though she may think that she's in her country, that she's one of them, she's unable to realize how much of an outsider she really is. Even so, Maria is no fool. She's tough and uncompromising, and it's not hard to see why she would feel even more out of place in France, where she'd be forced into idleness. Huppert magnificently brings out the contradictions in Maria's attitude; she embodies strength and resilience one moment, which become more like foolish pride in the next. Eventually we see that she too is scared.

Less sympathetic are the African characters. The most substantial role is given to Isaach de Bankolé, a Denis regular, and he manages to do as much as he can with little. But most of the Africans are engaged in bloodshed amongst themselves. Child rebels seem dangerous at first, but they manage to cause little more than mischief before government soldiers casually slit their throats while they're sleeping. Some critics have pegged White Material as an indictment of colonialism, but it's clear that Denis has a much greater affinity for the coloniser. One could just as well say that White Material condemns the violence that is so much a part of the continent.

Chances are, however, that Denis has no interest in condemnation. Her films trade in ambiguity and difficult questions, and White Material is obtuse almost to a fault. We rarely have any idea of who's right and who's wrong, what's right and what's wrong, or of why any fight is going on at all. Even the chronology is messed up. One white character goes off the wall, shaves his head, and starts waving a gun around, and even if this sort of "Heart of Darkness" story always struck me as a little bit racist (as if there's something in the place itself that brings out evil), in this context it's more of a way to ensure that the violence is pouring forth from all sides, that the blame gets passed around.

White Material avoids picking sides by never getting caught up in the frenzy of any of the on screen action. Everything--even the murder of the child soldiers--is presented with calmness and lyricism. There's a surreal thickness to the film that comes, in part, from Denis's focus on the landscape, on the coffee trees, the dust, the green forests, and the heat (the excellent score by Tindersticks helps as well). The natural beauty of Cameroun (where White Material was filmed) doesn't feel oppressive; for Maria--far from being a heart of darkness--it's a source of life, it's why she won't give up. And Denis, even when she's showing the soldiers at their most savage, never fails to bring out the beauty in the landscape and the people that inhabit it. Even at her most vulnerable, Maria's face is graced with nobility, as are the faces of the workers, the townspeople, and even the soldiers. White Material may not have the compassion of 35 Shots of Rum, but it is, in it's own way, a labor of love.


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