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SAN FRANCISCO — With “White Material,” a taut, unforgettable film, French director Claire Denis returns to Africa but it’s not the place she knew as a child or the comparatively innocent world of her debut feature, “Chocolat.” Instead, the unnamed country where the film’s story transpires is a ruined paradise overtaken by poverty and near mythic violence; human savagery has been unleashed and the unspeakable is primed to happen and does.
In her strongest work since “Beau Travail,” Denis creates the threat of imminent danger through stillness and austerity rather than action. She’s helped immeasurably by an astringent, fully committed performance from her leading lady, a gaunt, impossibly resolute Isabelle Huppert, who is as hard and unforgiving as the patch of land on which her character, a stranger in a strange land, has staked her claim and hacked out an existence.
Subtitled films have an especially difficult time gaining theatrical release in the U.S. but Denis’s reputation, coupled with the film’s high caliber and what is certain to be positive critical response, could attract a modest arthouse audience.
Settlers in a territory torn apart by civil war and dead-eyed, machete-wielding child soldiers, French ex-pat Martha Vial (Huppert) and her family have been running a coffee plantation but production comes to an abrupt halt after war breaks out between the rebels and the government. Both sides may be brutal towards each other but they share a resentment of the white interlopers. Though Martha’s workers flee, she refuses to leave or acknowledge the gathering storm, a form of denial that escalates into delusion and jeopardizes those around her with inevitable, tragic consequences.
With tenacity bordering on madness and no small amount of courage, however misguided, Martha insists on operating the crippled plantation, even as her husband (Christophe Lambert) barters for their safety with the local mayor (William Nadylam), an ominous figure who, now that the tables have turned, holds all the cards. Denis has much to say here about the deadly game of power, those who have it and those who would take it away or take it back.
Martha’s willful blindness extends to her angelic looking lay-about teenage son (Nicolas Duvauchelle). He goes off the deep end following a terrifying incident in which he’s stripped and has a shank his hair lopped off by a pair of African children. Violence is the monster in the box, waiting to jump out, and no one is immune. Scruffy wild animals emerging from the woods seem civilized compared to the humans rampaging through the countryside. Scenes of the waif-like Martha, wandering on dusty clay roads in her pastel dresses, heighten the impression of a creature no longer at the top of the food chain.
The spartan script by Denis and Marie N’Diaye shifts back and forth in time while Guy LeCorne’s editing lends surreal transitions and ill-defined relationships the hazy logic of memory. Yves Cape’s handheld camera, like an unseen predator, stays uncomfortably close, stalking Martha as relentlessly as the danger she’s unwilling to face, and the mournful score of aching cellos and tribal rhythms by Denis’s frequent collaborator, Stuart Staples, marches toward unbearable loss.
“I would never have to show courage in France,” says Martha of her preference to struggle and die in this godforsaken place rather than live a slack, meaningless existence in comfort. She hangs on when hope is gone and all signs point to the exit because she has nowhere else to go.
Venue: San Francisco International Film Festival
Production co: Why Not productions, France 3 Cinema, Wild Bunch, Les Films Terre Africaine
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Baankole, William Nadylam, Christophe Lambert, Michel Subor Director: Claire Denis
Screenwriters: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Abiassi Saint-Pere
Music: Stuart Staples
Costume designer: Judy Shrewsbury
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 103 minutes
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