Thursday, December 2, 2010

White Material (2009) A Film by Claire Denis

In recent years, Claire Denis has made an unexpected jump from the abstract, open-ended story collages of The Intruder and Trouble Every Day to something more prosaic and definable, with results both safer and equally accomplished. The interaction between Denis' bold, loose-limbed formal elements and the more straightforward narratives she has embraced makes for an interesting hybrid, certainly for 2008's 35 Shots of Rum, a gentle Ozu homage, and perhaps even more so with her latest film White Material. This time she has ventured away from the sedate and fleeting pleasures of her previous film and revived the strain of implicit bloodlust so delicately hinted at in much of her cinema, yet the story structure remains comfortable. A somnambulistic and radiant French plantation owner named Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) clings to the promise of her coffee beans even as a potent threat of indigenous violence swarms around her uncharted plot of African land. On all sides, a civil war obliterates her fences (both literally and figuratively), and the misshapen nature of them is scrutinized by Denis as if fences are ever anything more than superficial indicators of differentiation between people and ways of life in her work.

This indistinct political situation - a war between a violent native militia and a scattered group of rebels, as well as, to no lesser impact, a troupe of armed and dangerous kids - is merely given a cursory examination. Denis allows only the basics of this conflict to organically work themselves out in the viewer's consciousness because it is, of course, a fictional construct, but also because Maria is so hopelessly unaware of specifics. Early on, in one of the film's most memorable scenes, she stalls while taking a spin on her motorcycle before being called out by a helicopter of French troops who insist that she evacuate the country, where it has become especially dangerous in the no-man's land of Café Vial. Maria just stands there stubbornly and confidently in the middle of the dirt road until, as if punishing her for not taking a hint, the helicopter swoops closer to the ground, clouding her with dust. The elimination of perspective as the dust explodes into the foreground of the shot visually encapsulates Maria's arrogant and self-defeating vantage point, her inability to register the escalating tension around her, and it's particularly jarring when placed aside the beautiful, liberating images that came before it of Maria happily riding her clunky motorcycle around her plantation (not unlike the final moments with The Wild Woman in The Intruder). Immediately, Denis establishes how purity and sensuality can exist right beside corruption and ugliness, a dialectic that could be the ideal description of the film's complex treatment of Africa.

Clearly, part of White Material's thrust is the deconstruction of European colonialist attitudes, the feeling of simultaneous equality and superiority that frames Huppert's character. Though it goes without saying that the film is criticizing this mindset through its relentless responses of terror to Maria's acts of hypocrisy, Denis is never quite so single-minded. Within Huppert's remarkable performance, there are dynamic displays of perseverance, tenderness, and intelligence to go along with her more glaring moments of smugness and exploitation, guaranteeing, if not outright sympathy, then at least no easy antagonizing. When Maria loses her familiar plantation workers and heads into town to collect more, the objectification and manipulation that she flexes is perhaps inexcusable, but later, Denis reveals her seemingly at peace with the son of her black ex-husband, going out of her way to pick him up from school, or generating a tentative but mutual relationship with "The Boxer" (Isaach de Bankolé), a washed-up, wounded rebel hiding out at her plantation and often cited on the radio broadcast that variably plays throughout the film. These instances portray Maria as a kinder and more accepting individual than she may initially seem, someone who simply wants to maintain the land she believes she owns legally and monetarily and will go to great lengths to do so. Cinema audiences want to be able to root for this kind of persevering figure - especially when, in her soft sun dresses and sandals, she looks like such an alien with no fighting chance - but Denis orchestrates a more complicated scenario, one without a clear-cut voice of moral authority.

This is further shrouded by the supporting players in the immediate and extended Vial family. To some degree, White Material functions as an opaque family drama driven by oft-suggested tensions among members, such as the feelings of disappointment, inadequacy, and estrangement surrounding Maria and her good-for-nothing son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) (even if this relationship triggers Huppert's warmest offhand smile), the suspicion and loaded distrust between Maria and her other ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), who negotiates a behind-the-scenes deal to sell the plantation, or the enigmatic force of Maria's father-in-law and proprietor Henri (Michel Subor), a native of Africa who is more or less lounging around mysteriously whenever onscreen. Connections are challenged after a pivotal scene when Manuel is stripped and toyed with by a pair of spear-and-machete-wielding children in an open field just within the Vial's boundaries, inspiring sudden and inexplicable Travis Bickle-isms in Manuel. Notably, he raids Henri's dwelling before disappearing as a newly anointed vigilante/rebel, donning Henri's purple robe as a displacement of his unspoken patriarchal power. This chilling scene forms the emotional undercurrent for the film's ambiguous final dramatic cataclysm, an outbreak of violence that justifies the numerous recurring shots of unused weapons throughout.

Denis is typically subtle in her visual storytelling here, and it comes as no surprise that the "white material" of the title, which is defined by the natives quite simply as the products of the white colonists, comes to outline the characters and themes. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has penned an essential visual essay about the particular objects that fill in for the psychological penetration that Denis deliberately eschews; it's a collection of observations I only passingly picked up on when I watched it that confirms the offhand visual sophistication Denis offers in even her most comparatively direct narratives. It's thrilling to experience the ways in which she loads this potentially didactic political critique with nuance and competing emotions, peppering her storytelling with various gaps (less expansive and inscrutable than in previous work) to encourage imaginative participation with the film. White Material's an oppressive, breathtaking, and predictably complex experience, up there with the heights of Denis' work.

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