Claire Denis, along with being one of the best filmmakers working today, is also one of the most unique. Her work, spanning decades, is consistently evolving each time she makes a film; each movie is completely unlike its predecessor. Each film of hers is so drastically unique it is always so exciting to hear what idea she has next. I have only recently discovered her work with Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day, and already I know how brilliant of a filmmaker she is.
White Material is about a coffee plantation owner, Maria (Isabelle Huppert), living in an unnamed French-speaking African country who refuses to leave the country when it is in the midst of a violent civil war. Maria is determined to continue to harvest her coffee beans and continue with her life, even when it is dangerous for herself and her son. Having seen quite a number of films centering white people in African communities (very few of which I enjoy nor are any good), I was pleasantly surprised to see a film that did not succumb to a tiresome and offensive trope of the white savior in Africa. Maria and her family were integrated within African society and were also affected (although not in the same way) by the rebel group terrorizing the community. It was wonderful and rare to see a story that depicted an African country without there being this particular message or comment; rather it felt as though Denis was portraying a devastating situation in an honest and fair way.
White Material is a beautiful work of cinema, somehow managing to capture the ferocious terror of war and violence as well as the quiet beauty of a country and its people all at once. The always perfect Huppert—one of the greatest actresses working today (probably ever)—stars in a role that was simply made for her. Here she gets to show the difficult complexity of not wanting to leave an unsafe country even if it means risking her own life and the lives of those around her. Huppert is the soul of the film, carrying so much depth in her performance, especially in the unspoken moments.
Denis is known for her non-linear, more atmospheric style of filmmaking, and this film is no exception. By breaking up the narrative and beginning the film with a scene from the ending, there is almost a cyclical form of storytelling, which provides an ominous inevitably of violence. Once everything reveals itself at the end, you realize that no matter how much Maria tries to deny the threat of violence, it was always going to end in death. Similarly, civil war brings this same feeling of the inescapable threat of violence and death.
Denis’s authorial style is evident in every scene. From the intense framing of faces and bodies to the patient, yet rhythmic pacing, every shot is imbued with careful intelligence. The cinematography elevates the story even further as rich colors depict the beauty of this country. In the film, Huppert’s character Maria says that the French soldiers do not “deserve this precious land”, that they do not “appreciate it” and this marks one of the themes of post-colonization and how it affects a country, its people, and the land itself. Throughout the story, it is made clear that Maria and her family (as well as other white people living there) are not welcome because they represent ideas of colonial oppression and plundering of wealth at the expense of African people. The final act is the culmination of the bubbling tension throughout the story, and the final scene is as devastating as it is raw and human. The film explores so much that needs to be unraveled further with themes of violence, masculinity, identity, and colonization. Claire Denis’s White Material is a sublime cinematic work at the hands of a master filmmaker and a film that continues to be one of the greatest of the century.