Reviews - White Material
Reviewed By John Stakes
Her 2009 “White Material” is set in some nameless part of Africa and based on the book by African novelist Marie M. Diaye. Denis’s favourite actress (and many others’ too) Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria Vial, the owner of a failing coffee plantation at the start of a local civil uprising comprising mainly of boy soldiers. The men in her life are her shifty ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert), her sick father-in-law, and her stay-in-bed son Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle). The French-speaking troops have moved out along with many of the settlers in this region but Maria decides to stay long enough at least to harvest her coffee.
Maria presents as one of Huppert’s less extreme characters (Huppert having previously played an incestuous mother, a seductive piano teacher, and a psychotic home-maker) as she goes about staring down the opposition. Some would say her penchant for playing dysfunctional victims is now becoming somewhat predictable but there’s no doubting her suitability for this role. True to form there is no-one around her who comes close to matching her grit and determination. She invests these roles like no other but never at the expense of making her characters any better or worse than they are. What you see is what you get. In short she’s become an institution. The question in this film is…... is she merely unrealistically stubborn or a true heroine?
“White Material” reminded this reviewer of “The Sea Wall” (in which Huppert played a tea plantation owner fighting officialdom and the elements) and the true-life documentary “Mugabe and the White African” shown at this year’s festival. There the Campbell family, farmers in Zimbabwe, took on the fearsome Robert Mugabe at huge physical, mental and economic cost to themselves only to find their eventual victory in the International Court was no more than pyrrhic as Mugabe swept them aside. The family’s inner strength was borne out of their group resolve and religious convictions. Here Maria’s determination is no less pronounced but springs it seems from single-minded, dogged determination reflecting her identification with the plantation as her home, and she lacks any support from what loosely remains of her family.
As Maria’s rural life crumbles around her André tries to do a deal with the local mayor who offers protection he cannot deliver (remember the sign “the Mayor keeps his word”?) in return for the ownership of the plantation. Maria makes her own situation worse by befriending a wounded rebel soldier known as “the Boxer” (Isaach de Bankolé) and Manuel is attacked and seriously injured after which he shaves his head and joins the rebels.
These events do not unfold in a routine narrative manner as Denis requires her audiences to invest a good deal of time and effort to achieve a deeper understanding of the film’s themes of the frailty of human relationships, courage under oppression, alienation, and the façade and relativity of civilisation.
The unfolding of events is never made clear but this was deliberate, making us feel disorientated and fearful. Denis achieved a mounting sense of menace with minimum brushwork no better exemplified than by the indifference etched on the faces of the orphaned boy soldiers. Brilliant! Her close-ups of Maria invested her with an enigmatic quality which accentuated her inner strength and ability to shut out extraneous matters as she drove herself on but without making her seem saintly, stupid or arrogant. This was filmmaking of the highest order which left its audience rightly stunned. The squeeze-box sounding music from Tindersticks struck just the right dying animal note.
Huppert has probably achieved more sustained artistic success than any other actor, her lengthy credits including one César (nominated for eleven more) and she has won best actress twice at both Cannes and Venice. She’s played almost everything except a kidnap victim in the hands of a separatist group but that is about to be rectified in her next film!
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