Sunday, 9 January 2011
White Material (2009) dir. Claire Denis
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankole, Christopher Lambert
By Blair Stewart
A bitter, brittle remark on colonial Africa just before the whites all fled, Claire Denis revisits her childhood days in the great Continent. Isabelle Huppert is Maria, a prime mover, the workhorse behind a desperate coffee plantation on its last legs in a barely-democratic nation on its last legs.
As Maria busts ass to replace fleeing workers and plug holes before the harvest the radio crackles with death against the land's old masters there and abroad. Her motives to stay are perplexing with the anarchy her own family faces if caught between piecemeal child soldiers and the local militia. Initially Maria's son Manuel (Nicholas Duvachelle) chooses to fade away over burning out while her hustler ex (Christopher Lambert) cuts deals for a lifeboat out of the civil war. Emerging from the wild onto the family's coffee fields an enigmatic warrior (Isaach de Bankole) appears. We follow the eerie sight of the sharp, pale figure of Huppert as she crosses a landscape of sanguinary earth and lewd jungle overgrowth, her surroundings shouting blood against her European roots.
An accomplished follow-up to the highly praised "35 Shots of Rum","White Material" is mostly successful in part to the obvious casting of Huppert as a morally specious colonialist with her head just above water. She has a tense intelligence that makes it believable Maria could have long survived in the 3rd world.
As her partner Christopher Lambert returns from the dead in an excellent casting choice as he's always possessed the smile of a Master Bullshitter. Lamentably the charismatic Bankole from Jim Jarmusch's recent work is given scraps for his role while the metamorphosis that Duvachelle's character experiences becomes a stretch on credibility.
While the imagery Denis conceives is effective, and the collaboration with cinematographer Yves Cape bears fruit from a setting of ghostly rescue choppers and the dead below, to open the film with its climax is a regrettable one. What could be accomplished by revealing the fortunes of your players before they have a chance to engage the audience in their fate?
Regardless of the choice in prologue "White Material" is worth seeing for its unsettling 2nd act alone. A worthy addition to Old World griefs in the New World, but not a flawless one.