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October 17, 2009

White Material, 2009

whitematerial.gifA textured panorama of modern day Africa's dynamic and volatile cross-cultural landscape, Claire Denis's White Material is an abstract and elemental, if oddly sterile rumination on colonial legacy and socioeconomic stagnation. Unfolding in episodic flashbacks as second-generation coffee plantation owner, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) scrambles to make her way back home after a forced evacuation of European settlers in light of an escalating civil war, the film structurally interweaves the parallel lives of the Vial family, a band of roving child soldiers scouring the countryside for "white material" trophies from fleeing settlers, and a charismatic military officer turned rebel leader known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) who has gone into hiding to recover from injuries sustained during a recent skirmish. With the family patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor) removed from day to day operations, her estranged husband, André (Christopher Lambert) seeking protection from the corrupt, warlord-like mayor (William Nadylam) by secretly agreeing to sign over the deed to the plantation, and her immature son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) unwilling to take on responsibility for the family business, Maria is left alone to manage the upcoming harvest, negotiating with former employees and impoverished villagers in an attempt to bring the coffee to market. But as agents of the civil war circle ever closer towards the near deserted plantation, Maria's illusive quest soon becomes a journey into the heart of darkness. By decentralizing the conflict to an indeterminate country even as she incorporates real-life elements from contemporary African history (most notably, in the Boxer character who is based on assassinated Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara, and the induction of child soldiers in the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone), Denis incisively dissociates the issue of African stagnation from reductive presumptions of long-standing tribal (and implicitly localized) conflict, reframing it instead within the broader context of racial, economic, educational, and class division. It is perhaps this sense of universality that ultimately defines the form of Denis's uncharacteristically raw and unfocused film, reflecting, like the unprocessed coffee beans, an immediacy that transcends simple economic reality and instead converges towards murkier implications of globalism and cultural survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival


Excellent review. I have to say the first three-fourths of this film worked really well for me. I liked the abstract nature of the scenes as they unfolded. But then as the story took hold and the characters developed I actually found it less and less interesting. Still, it's good to have a new Denis film.

Posted by: MattL on Aug 23, 2010 12:41 AM | Permalink

Thanks, MattL. It sounds as though we had a similar reaction. I was really in tune with the fragmentation of the earlier scenes, trying to piece them together, and how it was forming a kind of mosaic of life in postcolonial Africa. But yes, when the family drama started becoming more of the focal point, it became a little banal for me. On the other hand, I can understand that Denis was probably struggling with representation as well, because even though she is from Cameroon, she's also French, and closer culturally to the latter than the former. It's still very much an outsider's gaze.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 23, 2010 9:28 AM | Permalink

The fractured presentation of the narrative seemed to match the fractured lives of all the characters in this film. I also enjoyed the ironies - the son burned to death in the blaze of coffee beans, the small torchlight cast in darkened places - but I also thought it was kind of relying on imagery I've seen / read before. A watchable film nonetheless.

Posted by: Larts on Aug 04, 2011 4:25 AM | Permalink

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