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.”