Your Friends and Neighbors
by Michael Koresky
Dir. Claire Denis, France, IFC Films
Claire Denis’s films usually stray so widely from anything resembling newsworthy topics that her new White Material, an experiential foray into a contemporary African crisis, risks being categorized as merely “topical.” This might not sound so damning a criticism generally, but Denis’s devoted followers tend to most admire the French director’s unassailable focus on corporeality and unerring ambiguity, and perhaps implicitly her ability to remain untethered to the issues of the day. The fact that the subject matter of White Material sounds instantly quotable (hence reducible)—a white plantation owner living in an unnamed African country suddenly finds herself amidst civil war and must decide whether to evacuate as the violence escalates—has already gotten a handful of die-hard Denisians’ backs up. Rather than an ethereal globe-hopping adaptation of writings by a French theorist (L’Intrus) or a personal, insular rumination on a one-night-stand (Friday Night), this is a fleshly, concrete dramatizing of a time and place, and, yes, it’s capital-R relevant—yet since it’s a Denis film, it’s hardly a conventional “social problem” picture or even a linear narrative. Instead, it’s yet another emotionally complex study in character identification.
Physically, this new film is recognizably Denis; White Material is all motion. Friday Night, L’Intrus, Trouble Every Day—they all focus on movement and bodies, and personality is strictly defined by what people do and how they do it. In this case it's even more pronounced since the bodies in question are caught up in harrowing life and death situations, so if we’re talking generic categories (Trouble Every Day is perhaps a reconstituted horror film), then it wouldn’t be far off to call White Material Denis’s action movie. Isabelle Huppert is then this film’s action heroine, although her brand of take-charge is stoked by long-cultivated superiority. This depiction of white pride of ownership, so firmly entrenched in Denis’s and writer Marie N'Diaye’s narrative and visual landscape and so expertly embodied by Huppert, is a marvel, largely because of its naturalism; there’s no sense that these characters—coffee plantation owner Maria Vial, her layabout grown son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ex-husband, André (Christophe Lambert)—have been suddenly manufactured before our eyes so that the filmmakers could make a point. We’re a far ways off from films like Blood Diamond and A Dry White Season here. Instead, this is a portrait of Africa that’s enormously lived-in, despite and also, shockingly because of, its focus on white people.
They are the material of the title, of course. They have been in this unnamed country so long that there’s little question to their entitlement—to the land, to its people, their workers. Maria believes reports of civil unrest and mounting violence are exaggerated, so she refuses to leave her crops and business behind, despite the increasing difficulty of finding men willing to stay on to work and the fact that all the other French nationals are summarily evacuating; another sign of her increasing delusion is her insistence that their remaining is worthwhile since the price of coffee will inevitably rise.
This delusion becomes psychosis and seems to infect everyone around her, directly or not, and the white men in her family provide revealing contrast: Lambert’s surprising fragility, Duvauchelle’s dulcet-eyed indifference, and Michel Subor’s moneyed pomposity as André’s father are all pitted well against Huppert’s dominating stubbornness. Of course, it’s Huppert who walks away with the film: she’s certainly been steely in the past (occasionally to a fault), but here Denis drains her of her occasional penchant for simple stoicism. This is a dazzlingly animal performance, and the camerawork (this time by Yves Cape, rather than Denis’s usual cinematographer Agnès Godard) is one and the same entity with Huppert. It’s always tracking, following, sidling up to her—just generally staying uncomfortably close, close enough to see imperceptible changes in her façade, changes which the narrative, as it turns out, refuses to spell out, or even dramatize. Maria’s slow realization of the horrors around her—depicted in a highly sophisticated achronological narrative, which jumps back and forth in time, often only allowing us such markers as costume to tell us where and when we are—lead not to her “moral awakening,” as nearly any other film of this kind would, but rather to a moment of desperation so shocking and seemingly from-nowhere that it throws the entire film (and our understanding of its characters) in new light.
And what are these horrors? Denis and N’Diaye keeps the source of the civil war generalized, but palpable and hardly simplistic. Denis is often an abstract filmmaker, but Africa is here not treated as an abstraction, an idea, or the unknown. Denis has in the past made a specific geographical location feel otherworldly, alien, and untenable, even as she grazes its texture with her camera—but here she makes location vivid and terribly real, a genuine place in this Earth, now fallen into nightmarish disrepair. Militiamen are killing and ransacking, taking over stores and hospitals; rebels are fighting, largely off-screen; child soldiers roam the countryside (in one indelible image popping pilfered pills and medicine like candy). Isaach de Bankolé, he of the focused facial determination that Jarmusch exploited so beautifully in this year’s The Limits of Control (and one of the only actors who can give Huppert a run for her money in the stoicism sweepstakes), plays a fallen rebel leader nicknamed “the Boxer,” who, after being wounded, finds his way to Maria’s plantation to hide from militia hunting him, as well as the children who want him as their leader.
The Boxer, vibrant and living in the moment even if critically injured, contrasts well with the white Vials, who can barely see their own rot, so firm is their unaware sense of belonging. That Maria envisions herself as one of the common folk, as opposed to the one with the power (she even refers to other French nationals as “dirty whites” at one point), has perverted her perspective on her own place in the world. It might not sound far off from any number of postcolonial critiques, but in Denis’s hands it’s a headlong immersion into the lingering colonial mentality—the potentially academic made flesh and blood. Denis is interested in how people are forever altered by environment, the most drastic of which turns out to be the beautiful, blond Manuel. Though his actions are defended by his deluded, devoted mother, Manuel, who has cut himself off from everyone and doesn’t work at all, grows increasingly dangerous after an assault by curious, marauding children leaves him to an extreme example of a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” situation—and a symbol of oddly overturned white supremacy. Manuel might be the film’s most jarring character—an impenetrable, frightening emblem of white self-destruction—but he’s also its purest essence, a confused embodiment of the ultimate emotional and social decay of racial superiority. If that doesn’t go some way in defining our world, I don’t know what could.