French film legend Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria, a wilful French woman refusing to give up her coffee plantation in Africa, where war and racial tensions are threatening to tip the nation into chaos. Nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. Directed by acclaimed French director Claire Denis (Beau Travail), and also stars Christopher Lambert and Isaach De Bankolé.
Africa, both as a setting and an uncertain state of mind, has been a touchstone for the French filmmaker Claire Denis, who as the child of a public servant in the final years of colonial rule experienced various locales. In her 1988 debut feature, Chocolat, it was the backdrop for an autobiographical coming of age tale, while 1999’s sublime Beau Travail reworked Herman Melville for the modern day to interrogate masculinity amidst the desert landscape.
Approximately a decade on again there is White Material, and once more Denis’ take on elements of the vast, complex continent (she doesn’t make movies about "Africa," because these very movies defy the idea of a single cohesive whole) has shifted. This is at once a contemporary Africa, although at the same time the bloody ramifications that come with the French army quitting their role in an unnamed country where they’ve divided a nationalist government and various rebel groups in a northern province, echo losses stretching back 50 years.
White Material, which screens until Wednesday 2 February in an exclusive Australian season at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, unfolds in oblique serrated fashion, which is something of a reversion to the norm after 2008’s linear, comparatively forthright 35 Shots of Rum. Here we see the build-up, occurrence and aftermath of the violence that’s been building around an expatriate family’s coffee plantation. You see the flames before you realise the spark, and that makes Denis’ picture something of a thriller. The question is not what happened – we know – but why, and what remains for these people.
As ever the director, working for once without longtime collaborator, cinematographer Agnes Godard, studies her protagonists, noting their features and how they adapt to the physical world. In that regard there’s much to learn about Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the vital female presence running the threatened coffee plantation. Determined to get a crop harvested even as the French military warn her to leave, she’s dedicated to the point of blindness. She’s not so much convinced that all will be well, she’s just unwilling to even consider what could eventuate. Maria is pale, sturdy and attached to the land, even if that means she hasn’t considered the people.
Foreseen by the baleful, electric tangle of The Tindersticks’ score, violence for the sake of it – ideology and blood lust are different words for the same thing here – is always in the offing. The near deserted buildings are inhabited by Maria’s men, including her ineffectual son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her defeated former husband, Andre (an unexpected Christopher Lambert), and her father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor), who as ever in a Denis project is a knowing, unconcerned manifestation of future distress.
A band of child soldiers, blank killers who should be in primary school, are circling the property, and Denis neither redeems nor vilifies them. As with Maria’s obsession with the harvest, the film doesn’t justify or explain why someone acts why they do, even if common sense or basic morality opposes their outcomes. "How could I show courage in France," Maria asks, and slowly but surely the story instead asks if she’s truly showing it in Africa.
As a catcher of poetic, off-kilter imagery – mountains across the horizon are just seen briefly, because there’s so much danger in the foreground – Denis illustrates her rumination on post-colonial intent with resonant moments; a soldier carrying a rocket launcher and an infant on his shoulders, or Maria’s son, angry and violated, forcing his shaved blonde hair into the mouth of his father’s black partner. If you engage with Denis’ rhythm, the viewing experience is both harsh and telling.