Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau (screenplay)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and William Nadylam
When viewed through an American lens, the new film by French director Claire Denis has an almost eerily identifiable allegory to our society. It follows Maria (Isabelle Huppert) as she tries to cling to her way of life as the French colonial society in Africa crumbles. The economy and the very fabric of society are tanking, and she and her family’s wealthy coffee plantation are at stake.
Maria is not solely sympathetic. Her stubbornness and white arrogance have led her to a place where she thrives while many around her are left to suffer in poverty and death. Denis gets this point across not just by putting Maria in the midst of this chaos, but by showing us first-hand the toll of poverty in the form of child soldiers.
Denis does not talk down to her audience about this issue, something that is critcal to the movie’s bite and its success. She has a perfect visual sense, able to convey that these children are too young for war simply by showing that they pass under a low-hanging tree branch while the other adult soldiers must duck. Later, among a scattered pile of stuffed animals, these children sleep peacefully. They are not restored to their childhood; the animals look like relics from an unknown culture of privilege.
This is how the story of that violent upheaval is related back to Maria. A wounded leader in the guerrilla army has taken refuge in her plantation, and all she can think about is going into the village to hire some workers to harvest the coffee before Hell fully consumes the area. Unaware of her surroundings, she wanders out into the nearby village. Her gated-community world is about to be unhinged.
By the end of the movie, Maria has lost control not only her way of life, but her family as well. Her son, after being brutalized by some soldiers, goes off the edge and takes off into the countryside. Her other “friends” are either nowhere to be found or have double-crossed her.
This madness couldn’t be more beautifully or thoughtfully filmed. The visual palette is striking, and speaks volumes about the story’s themes as well. Maria, in a white and pink satin dress walks down an orangeish dirt road surrounded by pathetic looking trees. The absurdity of her quest is shown in this one image alone. It’s to Huppert’s ability as an actress that Maria is a fully drawn-out character. During the film’s fractured narrative, she goes from well-looking to sickly, but always stubborn.
White Material is a universal testament to wealthy obstinance. Set in the backdrop of violent revolution, you can see exactly what the filmmaker is trying to show about it. That it applies to more than one culture is not coincidental; it is a story of and for its time, a look back at the past that speaks volumes of our present and hopefully not our future.