No music, little camera movement, background noise from others in the house or from a laptop tuned to Nollywood TV, otherwise all focus is on Delphine. Raped + pregnant at 13, prostitution to get by in Cameroon and Belgium, proposed to by two white men and due to circumstances she married the one she’s not in love with. Shunned by family after a sick niece died in her care, but that’s all forgotten after she moves to Europe and they assume she’s rich. She speaks English with a heavy dialect and French mixed in – Katy thinks it’s shady that the subtitler rephrased her dialogue when we can hear her speaking different words. All the titular prayers come at once, in a breakdown near the end. Better than most single-subject monologue films I’ve seen, still not my preferred mode.
Immediately reminiscent of early Spike Lee movies in style. Weirdo comedy from Cameroon. I didn’t follow all of the plot threads, but would have followed even less had we not read up on the movie ahead of time. The characters all helpfully introduce themselves to camera at the beginning, but there may be subtitle problems (“Call me GOOD FOR IS DEAD”). Somewhere in this jazzy intro, a young woman called Queen of the Hood apparently expresses a desire to experience life as a man, and so Mama Thecla transforms her into “Myguy” in a scene reminiscent of The Terminator (Myguy appears naked inside a fog-blanketed truck).
Myguy starts dating Saturday, the sheltered daughter of hard-ass local boss Mad Dog. I lost track of a couple other characters, but Mama Thecla had also transformed herself into Panka, a man who can cause other men’s penises to disappear with a handshake. She does this apparently for the hell of it, and it’s treated more as a hilarious prank than a source of terror in the community. After Saturday falls in love with Myguy, he meets Panka again and they transform back into their female selves. No word on where this leaves poor Saturday or the local men’s disappeared genitals. Audio commentary on the DVD would definitely be interesting, but alas, it’s in French.
[Panka] becomes My Guy’s guide and protector to the social and sexual politics of the quarter: a self-made man who reinforces his stature by taking on a second wife, the subtle inculcation of Christianity into daily life, even as the people continue to practice traditional – often conflicting – customs, the marginalized role and maltreatment of women that sharply contrasts with their real roles as family nurturers and community builders (and, as in the case of Mad Dog’s exiled first wife, literally feeds society when she sets up a vending stand near a high traffic street). As in [Spike] Lee’s films, Bekolo uses archetypal characters, informal fourth wall address, jaunty camerawork, and integral incorporation of pop music to illustrate the paradox of social and gender inequity and anachronism of contemporary life in post-colonial Cameroon.
Katy liked that it referenced American culture (Denzel Washington, Michael Jackson’s African influences) and America’s view of Africa (starving children).
A young white woman named France (Mereille Perrier of Boy Meets Girl) hitching rides through Cameroon flashes back to when she was young and Isaach de Bankole used to feed her ants. Her dad (Francois Cluzet of Chabrol’s L’Enfer) was a colonialist governor and Protee (Bankole) their house servant.
Protee and mom:
When dad attends to local and distant affairs, France and mom (Giulia Boschi) and Protee stay home showing each other displays of power and hidden attraction. A nearby missionary is having a difficult time because lions have killed all his farm animals. The house chef pretends to consult his cookbook, but can’t read.
Finally a Big Event: a plane crash-lands nearby and the pilot and passengers stay with the family while getting parts and repairs. Their stay causes all sorts of racial tension. A self-important coffee-grower has a weird relationship with his black housekeeper. One of the white passengers works on the plane with the black locals, eventually starts sleeping and bathing outside, getting on Protee’s nerves. Some of the passengers are more blatantly, vocally racist than the family is used to. Protee is kicked out of the house, plays a weird trick on the little girl where they both end up with their palms burned.
Senses of Cinema: “a semi-autobiographical film that functions as a political allegory examining gender, age and colonial relationships.”
Raised by missionaries into a white colonialist culture, removed from his cultural and racial heritage and emasculated by the domestic duties he performs, Protee is a liminal figure trapped between two cultures. This is clearly signified by the arrival of Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), a young lapsed priest who lives, eats and showers outside like the native servants. Luc threatens Protee, upsets the fragile equanimity, and induces Aimee’s betrayal of Protee and in turn Protee’s betrayal of France. This moment of betrayal explains the transformation in France’s gaze from the innocence and intensity of a child to the cynical wary gaze of an adult remembering and re-examining a complicated past.
More of a narrative than in 35 Shots of Rum, and more clearly defined than in The Intruder, but still with the shuffled chronology. It’s kind of an action thriller, though it undercuts the tension by showing us the fates of certain characters at the beginning. So, will Huppert make it to the village? Yes, because we’ve seen her future, days later catching a bus to the plantation. Will the boy with the spear kill her son Manuel as he floats in the pool? No, because we’ve seen his future, burning to death in a building. Not as softly sensual as some other Denis movies, the handheld motion-blur offering more eyestrain than intimacy.
The great Isabelle Huppert is Marie, who runs her aged father-in-law’s coffee plantation (he is Michel Subor, star of The Intruder) along with her relative (brother?) Christophe Lambert (who looks a lot like Christopher Lambert from Highlander and Mortal Kombat, only this guy is pretty good and speaks French) and her son Manuel – although I’m not saying Manuel helps run anything. He stays in bed all day, slowly going nuts. She’s strong and self-sufficient, works very hard for her coffee crop, but hers is the only white family for miles around their gated house with leather sofas, while the field workers live in a hot bunkhouse with a shared flashlight. So when rebels and military forces collide in town, neither is on her side. Isaach De Bankolé (Limits of Control, Casa de Lava) plays the most mysterious character, “The Boxer”, an inspiration to the rebels who is wounded from the start of the movie, arrives in secret at the coffee plantation and dies there of his wounds a day or two later.
Shot in Cameroon but set in an unnamed African country. I appreciated some of the similarities between this and other African-made films I’ve seen, such as portable radios being an important story element. Katy didn’t join me, somehow uninterested in a film featuring African children taking arms against colonialism. It’s probably my fault for spoiling her on Isabelle Huppert with Merci pour le chocolat and on Claire Denis with Friday Night, though I still don’t see why either of those should be disliked. I have a hard time finding serious foreign movies that she’ll enjoy. Nominated for the top prize at Venice, while 35 Shots of Rum, which I liked much better, wasn’t nominated for a damn thing.
Denis, asked why Huppert kills elder Subor with a machete at the end: “They’re both left, and I think she feels someone is responsible for letting everything happen. Maybe it’s weakness, or everyone’s blindness. But she needs to do something terrifying.”
Mubi: “Denis is too sexy to be considered disjunctive, but White Material is certainly her most jolting movie, since it traces the impression of a person experiencing nothing but breakdown—in bonds, in society, in people themselves—but somehow cannot see what is happening right in front of her. … Things like relationships and motivation all seem under-defined within such a clear-cut plot, but that may be because Marie’s fate is inescapable precisely because she can’t feel or see the nuance and meaning below the surface of her life. White Material keeps it on the surface precisely because that is the quintessential failure of its colonial heroine.”