Claire Denis’ “White Material”

I tend to gravitate towards films like this. Poetically paced, emotionally unnerving, raw and politically charged films that sometimes deal with realities I luckily never encountered in my own life. In this case, war, unrest, and a terror that has always been greater to me than any horror film Hollywood could conceive of. Human emotion run wild and an unstoppable quiet anger that destroys whatever is in its way.

Claire Denis‘ new film, “White Material” follows Marie (played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert), a coffee farmer in a nameless African state who stubbornly refuses to evacuate herself and her family from their home amidst strife and lawlessness in the presence of a warring militia and opposing rebels. It is at times difficult to watch this woman blinded by deadly denial who will not accept reality even as it points a gun to her face.

The film is beautifully shot with a quietly unnerving focus that betrays any sense of calm the landscape itself may momentarily imply. Marie’s stubborn determination is infuriating yet her sense of entitlement as well as those around her, empathetic. Throughout the film it seems to become obvious that Marie and her family are in deed the rightful target of the frustration a revolution breeds and needs.

While Marie’s husband Andre (Christophe Lambert) betrays her with the local mayor in his justified attempt to escape it is Marie’s slacker son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who eventually betrays her strength and reveals her as a woman unable to control anything around her including her son and herself.

There is one line that is said to Marie near the end, which sums up the film brilliantly: “You don’t want anyone taking what you have.” That is the brunt of it. This is a fantastic film with as much rawness and built up tension as one would expect from Claire Denis. The last film I saw of hers that I loved this much was “Beau Travail” in 1999 and this has the same quietly powerful pacing and tension screaming to be released. Both films were also shot in Africa, Denis’ birthplace as well.

The fact that we are not given the name of the state in Africa where the story takes place can also be taken as a testament to the fact that perhaps most people in “our” world don’t bother to pay attention to what is taking place where or with whom anyhow. The places are nameless and the tragedies of war torn corners of the world continue whether we pay attention or not.

There are also no facts given away easily in this film. There is nothing better than having to really watch a story unfold and learn as you go along, without classically structured dialogue or plot lines to force-feed you facts. There is an art to this sort of filmmaking that fearlessly presumes an audiences ability to follow along and come to his or her own conclusions and Claire Denis does it brilliantly. The film opens in NYC this Friday November 19th and in LA November 26th.

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