White Material (Claire Denis, France, 2009)
So this is the film that Claire Denis was too preoccupied with in preparation for its premiere to make it to an 'In Conversation With Claire Denis' event at MIFF last year. Well, I had tickets and was very disappointed that she couldn't make it, but now I forgive her. Her film that did screen at MIFF was 35 rhums/35 Shots of Rum and while it was widely lauded, I was underwhelmed by it. Good, but nothing special. White Material is, for me, a return to form.
Tacking themes similar to Disgrace, it succeeds in ways that Steve Jacob's film doesn't. There's none of the melodrama, plenty of contemplative moments (with an excellent and understated score) that leave ample space for one to feel a looming and overwhelming dread. The dread is hard to escape, because the film starts with how it ends - we know that no good can come out of this. There's pillage, murder, destruction. There are government militia, rebels and the innocents in between are in danger from both.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country, presumably a former French colony. Despite the risks, the threats and the warnings, she refuses to abandon her land, in denial of the obvious danger she is placing herself, her family and her workers in. The themes are relevant today; think Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe.
Huppert is looking painfully thin and is very authentic in this role. Christopher Lambert as her ex-husband, Nicolas Duchauvelle as her son and Isaach De Bankolé as a rebel leader put in solid support roles, but it's Huppert who dominates the screen. She effectively depicts both obstinance and desperation.
The title of White Material refers to the locals' description of property owned by the colonialists. The film is an indictment of the evils of civil war, specifically in Africa, with the depictions of violence, child soldiers and corruption. There are some brief challenging scenes of violence but mostly the mood is one of dread, of what could happen at any moment. The suspense in the film is as palpable as anything created by Hitchcock and I'm thinking Psycho here, though I'm not suggesting that these films are alike in any other way.
The film's flashbacks can be a little confusing, so one has to pay attention. I found it a little over-long (though this is only a minor quibble). Denis' Beau travail, also set in Africa, remains one of my favourite French films. White Material is not quite up to the same level of excellence, but one still feels that one is in the hands of a very competent film-maker. For fans of Denis, it shouldn't disappoint.