Elliptical, convulsive, poetic, and mournful, White Material is a haunting, poignant study of well-intentioned folly, embodied by a doomed heroine whose bravery renders her blind to the world that is crumbling around her. It’s a powerful and frightening commentary on the heart of darkness.
Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher, Gabrielle) is a white French farmer who runs a failing coffee plantation in an unnamed African country in the present day. Maria and her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert) have a mentally unstable son, Manuel. Civil war has broken out, and rebel soldiers are advancing on the area. Although the French military pleads with Maria to escape, Maria stubbornly refuses to abandon the harvest, which will be ready in five days.
As such, it centers on a family that feels inextricably bound to a country that does not want them anymore. It’s an unsettling, tormenting look at the self-delusion of a colonialist who’s convinced that she has become fully integrated into the place she’s occupied. The film’s dramatic vexations are at war with the prodigious visual skill, and it plays chronological hopscotch with events.
White Material possesses a defiance and exhilaration that’s a testament to its uniqueness and peerless craftsmanship. Equal parts terrifying and tense, direct and ambiguous, it marshals its resources with visceral clout and great intelligence.
Claire Denis (The Intruder, 35 Shots of Rum) is known for her vivid snapshots of contemporary culture. Denis’ viewpoint and sympathies are sophisticated, challenging, complex, and humane, and her movies defy expectations all the way down the line. Shot with an immediacy that’s hard to ignore, White Material is a lean and hungry thing. With the sparest of storytelling, Denis devours her audience, swallowing us up in a yarn that’s simultaneously enigmatic, dramatic, maddening, brutal, and realistic.
A visually ravishing, structurally beguiling portrait of post-colonial race-conflict as a hallucinatory apocalyptic dream, White Material is a disorientingly beautiful movie at times, which promises that, in the fullness of time, human madness and human love will ultimately balance each other out. It’s a thing of terrible beauty.
Unhurried in its storytelling but unshakable in its impact, White Material is an an intense, mysterious drama exploring revolution and loss, burning with a mute fear and rage at the ongoing atrocities in central Africa. The silent, balletic creep of child soldiers, grabbed out of school and sent with machetes and rifles through a forest to exact revenge for decades of repression, sears the memory.
As mesmerizing to watch as it is hopeless to draw deeper meaning from, it gives the viewer plenty to think about, but less to care about. It pesters the audience with its lack of resolution. Yet it achieves an eerie, transfixing power, building suspense, pathos, and irony in an allegory of the continent’s tragic past and the present-day consequences.
Fastidious, difficult, harrowing, and unsentimental, White Material is an exacting glimpse inside the self-destructive mind of people attempting to impose their will on a place that refuses its currency. It’s also emphatic confirmation that Denis is one of the world’s finest filmmakers.