White Material (2009, Claire Denis)

white material cover

"Blue eyes are troublesome."

Claire Denis' White Material is her most recent film until The Bastards debuts at Cannes this year. Born in Paris, but growing up across West Africa as the child of a civil servant, colonial themes are innate to Denis' ouevre. This film sees her in Africa for the third time time after Beau Travail (1999) and her first film Chocolat (1988), It seems that every ten years or so, Denis feels the need to revisit Africa.

In _White Material, _Denis works with Isabelle Huppert, a proposition exciting in itself, to create a disconcerting tragi-drama about a white coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country with her family. An already complicated situation is made more difficult by the increasing hostility of a country breaking into civil war. Her husband becomes aloof and disillusioned, and her son, already displaced and confused, implodes.

One of the first things presented in Denis' elliptically framed story, is a helicopter flying over Maria (Huppert) as she walks alone through the wilderness. The unseen ex-colonialists shout down to her, insisting that she gets back to France now whilst she still can, making contact with her but refusing to engage directly with the land. The last of the white ruling class are departing, fleeing, but Maria is unable to see that she no longer belongs.

Indeed everyone but Maria seems  to want to get away, her husband, her workers, even the chickens on her farm, Her stubbornness and commitment to holding onto a country and position where she is unwelcome, in peace or unrest, despite ever worsening state of affairs for Maria and everyone connected to her, gives Denis' film its central drive as well as its emotional significance. As Maria fails to hold onto something that seems to have not been in her grasp for a long time before the moment the film begins, her son and husband beside her fall away from her, one literally and the other figuratively, and she is left as the starkly isolated, lost figure Denis shows her as in the films mystifying opening.

Maria sees herself as a part of Africa, making a dismissive remark towards "dirty whites" early on, as though she somehow has transcended her colour and her history. When buying her produce, or riding aboard a vehicle carrying people, Maria sees no distinction between herself and the others around her. Denis, in her beautifully composed film, makes the distinction obvious, both in the starkness of Huppert's pale skin against the hues of both the African environments and people. Denis stresses, as per the title, Maria is not as ingratiated, equal, as she so delusionally believes. She is mere 'white material,' a remnant of colonialism, little more than a problematic anachronism of a bygone era. As much as she tries to desperately place herself, she is entirely dispossessed. She shouldn't be there.

White Material, like all of Claire Denis' films I have seen, deals with displacement and alienation, the difficulty of belonging, but out of them, it address these things in the most dramatic, horrific and arguably obvious manner. Perhaps, because of this, White Material is a not one of Denis' most favoured films, but for me, the fragmented narrative, fantastic cinematography and loose, floating camerawork, and mostly, the brilliant soundtrack from TIndersticks coupled with Huppert' strong, perfect for the role, performance, give it the same lyricism and sense of potency of the best of her films.

How Denis has still not made competition for the Palme D'Or at Cannes, there is no way of knowing. Her latest, Bastards, inexplicably sits in Un Certain Regard section. The more of her work I see, the more I agree with the esteem many hold her in, as one of the very best filmmakers in the world today.

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