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David Thomson on Films: 'White Material'

Claire Denis’s new movie is puzzling, nasty, and deeply disturbing.

Film-going is a total experience, so, when I went to see Claire Denis’s White Material in San Francisco this week, I had to sit through an advertisement for visiting South Africa and having a marvelous time. I’ve seen the ad before, and it gets increasingly depressing. There is lovely scenery and a complacent couple who can’t wait to get back there to regain the best Thai cooking of their lives and the rapturous experience of seeing elephants come to drink in the evening. Go if you must. I only know that my daughter—a world traveler—says South Africa is the scariest place she’s ever been. Why not? Just recall its history and abiding poverty (only a stone’s throw from the Thai restaurants—and do watch out for stones), to say nothing of the pervasive unease in much of Africa.

No one managing the theater seemed to understand the irony or the gap, but really, this commercial shouldn’t be playing before Claire Denis’s remarkable and deeply disturbing movie. You should see the film, but go with as many precautions as you might take before landing in Johannesburg.

White Material is set in an unnamed African country, and it’s no puzzle why the film is being discreet (though most of it was shot in Cameroon, a place where Denis spent some of her childhood). Isabelle Huppert is the driving force in a coffee plantation, but “driving force” doesn’t prepare you for Huppert’s dogged severity and relentless physical commitment, or her character’s refusal to do the smart, white thing—leave, forego the coffee harvest, before a mounting civil war gets out of hand and the sight of children carrying guns and machetes comes too close to home. 

That story seems simple enough, and the ending as you may guess is not reassuring. But I intended to say, as I sat down to write this review, that Denis had made the encounter deliberately difficult. The story is broken apart and reassembled in a way that leaves one crying out for simple information—and, when we go to the movies, we are desert nomads waiting for the oasis of “help.” There is a large, obstructive flash-back that seems perversely disorienting, and we cry out to have a fuller description of the family life at the plantation. Huppert has a dreadful son, a morose ex-husband, and a mysterious, invalid father-in-law. Are they together or apart? In the same way, we have no notion of what the civil war is about and how dangerous it is.

So I’ve voiced all those problems or complaints, yet, as I sat down to write, I realized that the deliberate confusion and the puzzles had shaped my feeling about the film. After all, one of the largest white lies (and a part of white material) about the cinema is that stories can be constructed and arranged so that everything feels tied up and answered, and everyone behaves with common sense and a purpose that qualifies them as characters. I’m still not sure whether Huppert’s farmer defies the civil war because she is dedicated to coffee, a selfish owner, a white woman born in Africa who feels herself a native—or is she as mad as the rest of her family? But those are fascinating questions, and they lead a viewer into wrestling with what the title means.

I should say that the film is called White Material; it’s not a translation from French. The term is used by some of the black characters in a derisory or menacing way, as if to say white material is trashy and the result of privilege, colonial theft, and racism. Equally, I can believe that, for Huppert’s character, the term is a badge of honor and allegiance, even if the locals might casually destroy her.

In no sense is the film “pretty.” The color is harsh and tiring—it makes a great contrast with the drenched hues and magic hour sunsets of the South Africa commercial. The hand-held camera style is not far from irritating. The music (by Tindersticks) is rustling, unsettling, and never melodious. The costumes are strange—Huppert’s woman wears little girl dresses. And Huppert herself—this comes as no surprise, in the light of her audacious career—braves the light and the heat with no make-up (except for lipstick worn like war paint). It’s not that Huppert is anything other than “beautiful” or commanding. She may be the best actress in the world on film. But she is brave enough to let us see her character as brave, stupid, and a pain-in-the-neck.

So I can’t get the stricken rhythms of White Material out of my head. I still feel it’s one of Denis’s lesser films—it is not in the class of Beau Travail or The Intruder. But that is the highest company for today’s filmmakers. As I watched White Material, I felt I was in Africa, and I felt afraid. I believed in the unsettled wounds of the recent past as surely as when reading V.S.Naipaul’s Guerrillas. In that novel and this film, there is a nastiness in the air that suggests the resentment gathered in history as much as heat coming back from the ground and the stench of unburied bodies. (In addition, a photograph of Doris Lessing suggests the influence of another African white.)

Claire Denis is 62, and White Material, I’d guess, was made on next-to-nothing in arduous and difficult locations. It is filled with African acting of the highest order, and the refusal to yield to travelogue is relentless and inspiring. I am not the first person to suggest that Denis is one of the best directors at work today, with a fierce, unproclaimed resolve that leaves someone like Werner Herzog looking a bit of a showboater. She is the real thing, so long as you are prepared for a trip to the movies being a lot less relaxing than a vacation in that lustrous South Africa where the Thai shrimp are as big as baguettes. Don’t miss it, but be warned.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.