Friday, December 10, 2010

Five Days

WHITE
MATERIAL

(Claire Denis,
France, 2010,
unrated, 108 minutes)


Coffee's
coffee.
Not worth
dying for.

-- A work-
er to Maria

Since the 1980s, French filmmaker Claire Denis has alternated between big movies, like 1999's Beau Travail, and smaller ones, like 2002's Friday Night (Vendredi Soir). Regardless as to their breadth and scope, there's
an intimacy to all of her films as she observes her characters closely, allows each scene to breathe, and keeps dialogue to a bare minimum.

From the start, White Material registers as one of her more ambitious
productions. Clad in a light cotton dress, a foundation-free Isabelle Huppert wanders alone through a devastated landscape before Denis reveals her character's identity and the (general) location of the story.


Maria Vial (Huppert) turns out to be someone who believes she's special--and maybe she is. A coffee plantation owner, she lives in an unnamed African nation filled with, in her words, "dirty whites." As the French army leaves, they recommend she do the same. Her neighbors also hasten her departure, but Maria needs five days to put her crops in order. While the soldiers fly away in a helicopter, she whispers under her breath, "Pretentious, arrogant, ignorant." Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Meanwhile, an injured boxer (Chocolat's Isaach De Bankolé) heads
towards her remote property. Along the way, he passes rows of dead
bodies that recall the genocide in Rwanda. Then, he spots a band of
child soldiers, one of whom cradles a gold lighter bearing the initials
A.V. (he took it from Maria's property). "White material," he calls it.

When they meet, the Boxer asks Maria if she's seen his
uncle. She says she hasn't,
but she allows him to stay.

After her workers split the
scene, she leaves him be-
hind to look for replacements, while her father-in-law (The Intruder's
Michel Subor) calmly takes a bath and her son, Manuel (Nicolas Du-
vauchelle), tries to sleep away the day. All the while, a pirate radio
DJ encourages the rebels to hunt the Boxer down and kill him.

Maria runs into her husband, André (a nicely subdued Christophe
Lambert), while rounding up workers. He neglects to tell her that he's
been trying to sell the plantation. Along with her young stepson, they
head back to the ranch. Though she's extended their stay for econom-
ic reasons, she endangers her family by doing so. A good provider can
still be a bad parent. Similarly: bravery can register as recklessness.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Nothing's mine, but I'm in charge.
-- Maria to a worker

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

While she goes about her business, the child soldiers sneak into her house. They rifle through the Vial belongings and humiliate a family member, who takes the abuse particularly poorly. I was hoping Denis wouldn't go to ex-
tremes to make her point, but the film takes a proto-punk page from Mar-
tin Scorsese's Taxi Driver playbook, and I found that development deep-
ly disappointing. What was subtle becomes, for a time, overstated.

The situation worsens from there, but at least Denis moves away from the
vigilante subplot. Suffice to say, the person who goes crazy was probably
disturbed in the first place. Though I can understand why Denis is critical
of Maria, and people like her, she takes it too far. Granted, movies about white privilege are rarely fun, and there's no reason they should be, but Denis is rarely so cynical. That doesn't make White Material a bad mo-
vie--and Huppert offers great value--but it certainly makes it a bummer.


White Material continues at the Harvard Exit through 12/24.
The theater is located at 4500 9th Avenue NE on Capitol Hill.
For more information, please click here. Images from IFC.

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