White Material (2009, Claire Denis)


When John Ford and John Wayne bid farewell to the iconography of the cowboy in The Searchers, it wasn’t a weighty personal concession to just the changing of the times, but also to morals, the gradual recognition of right and wrong that seems to rise so conspicuously from privilege. Claire Denis’ staggering White Material, a complex near-masterpiece, stretches those few seconds of reflection that signal the literal end of The Searchers and the metaphoric end of the western, and recasts it as a feature-length brood over the same issues, falling here on a woman running a coffee plantation in an unidentified African country that is undergoing a civil war. The film follows her delusional and painfully protracted attempts to delay the inevitable, to maintain the harvest and operate business as usual, going so far as to hire new workers when her terrified crew leaves. Initially symbols of privilege and colonialism are merely threatened, typically by radio-generated revolutionary rhetoric that seems to emanate from every speaker everywhere as an invisible cultural force, but gradually the troubles infiltrate the world of Maria (Isabelle Huppert) and her family, with tragic results.

This is a compelling and confounding story handled by a real filmmaker. The aesthetic beauty in the work of director Claire Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape is both a formal, cinematic triumph and the provider of an appropriately unadorned portrait of a woman who allows herself to be destructively driven by preconceptions of and her attachment to a land of gorgeous, overwhelming intricacy she can’t begin to wrap her head or her hands around. Denis approaches the film carefully and with a sure hand, never once overreaching. It’s something of a miracle that she’s able to strike a balance of generating some empathy for Maria and unreservedly denouncing the boxed-in class-conscious advantage she and her family have enjoyed for years up to this point, with all the racial overtones therein implied. This is one regard in which the film matters intensely — there are plenty of movies about overt racism, very few about people who seemingly mean well but are unconscious of how their behaviors and practices impact those around them. Maria looks the other way each time she’s given an opportunity to notice that she is now an old-world relic of an ugly past, wherever her own heart may lie.

Huppert isn’t in every scene, but the movie belongs to her — she is the subject of this character study, which does not see her grow or change but dig her heels farther in, until it’s almost certainly too late for her to ever escape in any meaningful way from her volatile surroundings. It’s hard to describe the approach White Material takes to immersing itself in her world; as much as we are privy to what’s inside her head in a strangely specific fashion, the film remains seductive and dreamlike because of the vagueness of its narrative and because it doesn’t underline or say too much. Dialogue is incidental, the secondary characters swoop in and out like ghosts, and just under the surface of everything is a raw humanity to which everyone except Maria herself ultimately surrenders. Her humanity is instead manifested in her dogged protection of what has been hers and what can no longer be.

It’s refreshing to see again a film that’s as linear as this one but is told in so sensory a fashion — smells, sights, places, sounds, everything except words, though words can serve as ominous wallpaper (the aforementioned radio chatter recalls the similar but much uglier sequences in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda). As a parable, it reaches its apex with the slowly brewing insanity of Maria’s son, an overprotected and sheltered young adult who bursts out of his shell with hatred and aggression, leading indirectly to several imperialistic murders and to the burning to the ground of the coffee plantation.

That’s good and well for the underlying consideration of a lilting, lyrical film about ugly tragedy that isn’t black-and-white simplistic. But there’s something deeper still here, something that reaches to the core of the last century of global experience. Of all the films that spring to mind here, one reigns above all: Maria’s family draws a clear line to the O’Haras in Gone with the Wind — their generations have come upon privilege and possession built on hateful acts long ago that continue, either subtly or overtly, to the time of the film, and each film is about the brood’s rigorous denial that their lives are founded on outdated prejudice and mores. Gone with the Wind was of course a not entirely well-reasoned document of the end of slavery — White Material captures the final cough of colonialism, in a more unforgiving fashion than even Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. Time will tell whether its thoughtful, elegant treatment of its subject matter is as prescient and vital as it seems now.

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