White Material is a touching and tragic story of the consequences of colonial tensions and civil war… I think.
I mean, that’s definitely the gist of it. It’s not hard to understand that paying to pass through a roadblock manned by rebel soldiers is not the way it should be, the way it has been, for those living in the unnamed African country that provides the setting for this film.
When Maria Vial, played by a spindly Isabelle Huppert, pleads with the workers on her coffee plantation to stay just one more week so that her crop won’t go to waste, it’s not difficult to realise that this is a country in turmoil and unrest. And when boy soldiers with machetes strip her son of his safety and dignity, it is all too obvious that the psychological consequences of the political revolt will last long after whatever their immediate fate might be.
It’s the intricate details of this film which are rather more unclear. Of course, it is precisely such intricacies for which Claire Denis is famed, and films such as Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum have built up her reputation for a mesmerising style of film-making.
At first we are lead to believe that our loyalties should lie with Maria. She’s more determined and honest than those around her, and when she takes in a wounded rebel soldier known only as The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), she proves she does not share their prejudices either.
But as the situation spirals out of control and she is repeatedly told to leave her unsafe home, she continues to resist and stubbornly stays put. The confusion is not so much with her defiance, it’s with her motive. Nothing, neither her un-supportive family nor her failing business, compels her to stick around, and it’s hard not to begin to question the rationality of it all.
While her apparent naivety at first gives her character an ethereal edge among the surrounding violence, it quickly becomes exasperating. This is surely made worse by the copious shots of a wispy-haired Huppert twirling in girlish dresses amidst the madness.
Denis doesn’t go out of her way to make it easy for us either. She cuts from one point in time to another, with little or no hint at what she’s up to. The relationships with those living in her house are fuzzy, and linger in the background of her constant crises. Regular radio announcements from a reggae-playing station give generic clues as to exactly what might be going on: “The party’s over for white people…no more cocktails on the verandah.” But still, without a fairly substantial knowledge of the fundamentals of civil conflict in contemporary Africa, you might well find yourself waiting for an explanation that never comes.
Admittedly, however, Huppert does a brilliant job at drawing you into her chaotic world; her powerful performance captures audience attention for the duration of this film. You might well find yourself wondering exactly what’s going on at some points but then, it seems, so does she – and perhaps that’s the point.
White Material is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 6th December 2010.