The film sees Claire Denis return to the world of her debut feature, Chocolat, but with a shift in how she chooses to lay bare its tone and politics. However, whilst Chocolat has its protagonist, France, accepting a land’s rejection of her even as it has marked her for life, White Material trawls a similar theme but through the agency of an adult woman, possessing childlike qualities.
The film draws critics back to Chocolat – because of the African setting (this time, unspecified in terms of country). There is the same disparity between the white colonial settlers and the indigenous population. In both films, the land/country rejects the interlopers and is a drama about difference, but also desire in the white, French settler to bridge that difference. The problematic relationship of power to desire is present in all of this. France’s mother, in Chocolat, desires Proteé despite their difference but never owns him even where she has proprietorial power over him. France returns unsatisfied and desires to recover something unspoken from the land; perhaps, the last place where she felt at home and a relationship she felt at home in. No such loss for Huppert’s character – she remains as myopic about her situation as a child or shares the romanticism of the father, Mark, in Chocolat. As he is its colonial master – still, just – he remains unpunished for his myopia.
Maria (Isabelle Huppert) is the wife of a plantation owner’s son – yet in her passion and her commitment, she is the driving force on land that, as she states at one point, is not legally hers. Through her involvement with it, however, we come to realise she has created a kind of ownership; it doesn’t have to be economic, her wishing and feeling make it so. What follows might be conceived a morality tale of how that passion destroys and leads to a kind of insanity. In the opening sequence, Maria returns to the plantation hanging off the back of a bus – like a local – and, therefore, starkly at odds, with her pale white skin and reddish hair. Cut to her speeding on a motorbike through the trees and she is called upon, by name, through a military helicopter’s loudspeaker to get out. The countryside has turned dangerous for ‘white material’ such as her.
Her choice is to remain and to stand completely firm – whilst those around her crumble – but one of the successes of this amazing film is to present the complexity of that choice fully. As disasters follow, the easy response is to see Maria’s tenacity as increasingly the driving reason for disaster and a measure of an arrogant insanity, a sign that she does not understand the land in its fullest political sense even if she understands how to grow and harvest coffee beans. No amount of self-reinvention – as her son’s story demonstrates – can bridge a cultural divide. However, nowhere is there any indication or direction as to the morality of what people have done or where narrative culpability lies. All the central characters bear some blame and are innocent simultaneously. If a tragic fate constantly threatens them, our response is to wish them to survive – whether Maria, the rebel leader or her unsupportive ex-husband.
The complexity of these responses, and the definite possibility that different viewers will sympathise and empathise differently, is entirely a construct of Denis’s evolution of an elliptical style of filmmaking. As in earlier films, both those set within tinderbox macro-political contexts (Chocolat, Beau Travail) or contained much more within the domestic (Nenette et Boni, 35 Rhums) Denis tells little, but shows everything in the nuances of a small remark or a character’s action without words. The Sight and Sound review (by Adrian Martin: July 2010) sums it up succinctly and perfectly as Denis’s “skeletal purity, beckoning viewers to enter the work and fill the gaps with their own imaginations”.
This purity can contribute to a delicacy of feeling in her films. In the domestic drama of 35 Rhums, we follow the interplay of desire and dependence and the brutal result of everyday change. Yet, where her subject matter is the wider, macro-politics of the eviction of white farmers (as in Zimbabwe) and the general political unrest in those regions – that delicacy of nuance in relationships is not lost, the need for a broad brush is never succumbed to. People are people are complex are often unknowable. Before the film, we might ask who’d stay in a land beset by war – afterwards we know the answer: all kinds of people and for a myriad of reasons.
In casting Huppert, Denis has found another actor equal to the complexity. Her mesmeric turn in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher shows this where, together with Benoît Magimel, she delivers a complex relationship through a performance that completely commands without any distracting showmanship. Huppert is a global female star and a must-see. She continues to be able to bring what the part needs and nothing else about herself besides.
And the presence of Michel Subor resonates strongly in a small role – he is the symbol in Denis’s films of that colonial cynicism and a decaying presence of French power. Subor, himself, complained whilst shooting L’Intrus that the narrative of the character’s physical disintegration was killing him! I wonder how he felt about playing such an ailing character in White Material again – but his capacity for a physicality in acting that imbues his screen characters with a lurking residual power makes him stay in the mind long after the film.
I love Denis’s films, not least because she demonstrates how form is so entwined with emotion in our watching. Denis pays intense attention to the physical detail and, like Resnais for example, understands how the action of non-naturalistic form is itself, a means of producing intense, real emotion in spectators.