Europe's colonial and post-colonial relationship with Africa is not much discussed in this country. Actually, nothing regarding the continent attracts American interest, outside of the genocides in Sudan and Rwanda. Even curious and concerned moviegoers, led on recent cinematic safaris by the white heroes of The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond, can be forgiven for feeling distanced from the indigenous populations.
Claire Denis's wondrously intoxicating and shattering White Material likewise centers on a white protagonist, Maria Vial (the amazing Isabel Huppert), through whose eyes we see the inhabitants of an unnamed African country at some unnamed date (a few years in the past, presumably) roiling rapidly toward civil war. But the film's focus isn't on the broader chaos and consequences as much as the inevitable, approaching end of Maria's world -- the coffee plantation her father-in-law founded and which she runs with her husband -- and her breathtaking denial and defiance in the face of events beyond her control.
Everybody advises Maria to abandon her business interests, and get out with her family while she can. She can't make them understand that this country, and not France, is her home. The film encourages us to ponder if this is yet another delusion of Maria's, or a true representation of the alienation (and rejection?) she experienced in her birthplace. If it is a delusion, we may infer that Denis is suggesting that even well-meaning colonialists have no place in Africa, which belongs to its (black) people.
Denis is both politically aware and Africa-savvy -- her stunning 1998 debut, Chocolat, dealt with a colonial family in 1950s Cameroon -- but I recommend White Material less for its worldview and storyline than for its thrilling, quicksilver storytelling. Denis is arguably the most relentlessly sensual filmmaker working today, and it is astonishing how quickly -- instantaneously, really -- she thrusts us into the film. Maria clings to a hurtling bus, the camera inches from Huppert's windblown mane of hair, and we feel the wind, the urgent now-ness of the moment and Maria's reckless indifference to self-preservation.
You know Huppert, and the ferocity, fearlessness and commitment with which she attacks every role. This time out, she adds a double shot of impulsiveness and stubbornness, upping the stakes yet somehow retaining our empathy even after she pushes past the threshold of reasonable behavior. For all the honors and acclaim Huppert has received, one walks away from her performance in this film believing she is nonetheless underrated.
White Material is visceral and terrifying, even as it is resolutely ambiguous and, with respect to one or two developments late in the film, unclear. It's rare to encounter a director these days who doesn't spell things out, or spoon-feed the audience. Denis challenges us, at every moment and in various ways, and for the filmgoer willing to play on those terms, offers a myriad of unsettling pleasures.
White Material is now playing.