White Material

It is said of Pink Floyd’s guitarist David Gilmour that his genius lies not just with what he plays, but with what he doesn’t play. Gilmour himself in an interview a while ago said that he wanted to play all the flashy stuff, but despite all his efforts his fingers weren’t just fast enough. So he resigned himself to play the style that we have become familiar with. But I digress …

Claire Denis’ latest film could be said to be a film that can be defined for what it doesn’t show than what we see on the screen. Does that make it a “better” film? That’s open to discussion. It feels a little disjointed at times, but it is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears nevertheless.

In an unnamed African country (I have a feeling it’s Cameroon, but it’s never said in the film - perhaps some linguistic knowledge may have helped …) things aren’t going so well. The Patriots (rebel guerrilla made up mostly small kids donning machetes and spears) and the military are fighting for the control of the country. It’s not immediately clear who is fighting for what, but they both have one thing in common: to rid their country of the white folk (the ‘white material’ of the title couldn’t have been more apt).

The Vial family (who run a coffee plantation) find themselves in the middle of this mess. Despite the French military asking (or more like begging) them to leave and their workers fleeing one week before harvest, the matriarch Maria Vidal (the inexplicably beautiful despite her age, Isabelle Huppert) refuses to leave. She runs the farm with her ex-husband (Christophe Lambert sans swords and ‘80s locks). Her father is bed-ridden and her son refuses to leave his bedroom. She tries to continue living and surviving despite the odds and the blatant attempts of failed persuasion of the people around her.

Meanwhile, the rebel leader “Boxer” takes refuge at the coffee plantation. Inexplicably, this important plot point is criminally underused, until the very end - by which time it feels serendipitous rather than exciting.

It is precisely this huge plot hole that haunts the whole film - Maria just accepts the bleeding guest at her house, despite the fact that he is the reason why she is being forced out of her business and her country.

Her reasons for not leaving the country are also a little bit vague. I don’t think there needs to be any justification if one does not want to leave their country, but it is suggested that she was not actually born there. Her refusal to go back to France feels short-changed: she keeps saying that she won’t be able to be as “active” there. Did they run away to this country and raise a family? Are there political reasons? There is a flashback where Maria remembers a little fling with the town mayor, but that’s about as much of her history we are allowed to glimpse.

In spite of all these little details that are missing, it is a mature film with a very objective point of view of the events. Denis’s camera is aways (perhaps rather ironically) in the middle of the events - we are always in the thick of whatever happens on-screen and usually from the point of view of the characters. The jumpy hand-held does feel all Cloverfield-y at times, but it tales a very short time to get used to.

As for Isabelle Huppert … she is incredible as always. She is one of the most talented actresses of her (or any other) generation and this film is no exception.

White Material is not Denis’s best film, but it is another addition to a great run of films she has been having recently. Things can only get better.