Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) must be the only person in miles who has bothered to paint her toenails.
It’s the tiniest detail in Claire Denis’ White Material, but it speaks volumes about what Maria’s status is in this nameless African country and where her priorities are in this place of civil unrest. She doesn’t wish to leave her family’s coffee plantation, the one that her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) has already sold off behind her back, but in a sense, she’s hardly there, going steadfastly about the harvest, even as her employees flee the region. She conducts herself in a manner that lies somewhere between defiance, denial and despair.
The French forces have already retreated, while the rebels – some of which are children, all of which are led by mythic figure “The Boxer” (Isaach De Bankolé) – draw closer and closer. One by one, her comfortable defenses against the turmoil outside – a working generator, a locked gate, a friendly pharmacist – are eliminated, and yet Maria remains, against all odds and all good sense, content with putting on pink dresses and red lipstick, the prettiest outcast in this forsaken corner of the earth.
As everything falls apart, Huppert keeps it together, grounding the tension and confusion of it all with her unfailingly stoic demeanor. When asked if she owns the plantation, she sums up her naïve worldview with one line: “Nothing’s mine, but I’m in charge.” Upon finding a severed cow’s head among the coffee crop, she buries it immediately, taking yet another necessary measure if she hopes to ignore the nearing upheaval and continue making the coffee Westerners might come to slurp as they read about said conflict in their morning paper. We’re never explicitly told why Maria insists on standing her ground, and we’re never entirely sure that she is right in doing so, but Huppert’s controlled performance proves to be a vitally calm eye to this particular storm.
The first time we hear/read the titular phrase, it refers to both the entitled Vial family and a monogrammed cigarette lighter of theirs, swiped from the plantation by a rebel soldier. With regards to the latter, is its new owner more taken with the gold-plated exterior or the destructive potential held within? Denis’ film takes place in a scary, sweaty, surreal realm where people face trouble every day (to borrow the title from a different film of hers). The threat of violence hovers over the majority of the film; we hear gunshots from some and see the wounds of others, but the director holds off on depicting any actual murder until the ninety-minute mark, eager to instead evoke an atmosphere of perpetual danger against the locals and colonists alike.
As if to assure the audience that things will not end well, the film opens with grim, disparate images of the fates our various characters will meet, before oscillating between the troubled times that Maria will come to face. Her approach proves frustratingly opaque at times, and the sudden transformation undergone by Maria’s son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) feels like a strained effort to beget further violence among the characters, but the immediate direction, editorial disorientation and completely convincing performances all help to create and maintain a constant sense of dread and moral uncertainty as to whom the territory rightfully belongs and why. The parallels to real-world colonial conflict are countless, and the class strife is sharply realized throughout; ultimately, though, White Material is a maddening movie that gives the viewer plenty to think about, but little to care about.
The earthy tones of Yves Cape’s cinematography are well-preserved by the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray transfer, as is the appropriately moody score from Denis alum Stuart Staples (of the band Tindersticks). Supplemental features include a lone deleted scene, which clarifies one character’s unfortunate demise; a 12-minute documentary shot by the director as she returned to Cameroon, where the film was shot and movie theaters are naught, for its local premiere; individual interviews with Denis, Huppert and de Bankolé; an essay by film critic Amy Taubin exploring the film’s themes; and a theatrical trailer.
White Material is available now on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.