White Material (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
22Jun/150

White Material (2009)

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Caught in the middle of a civil war, Maria tries to rally her workers and family to produce one last good crop of coffee beans.  As she continues to make her way through the land a rebel fighter known as The Boxer seeks sanctuary in her home.  Her efforts, and his fight, will have dire consequences on the land.  Claire Denis writes and directs White Material with cowriter Marie NDiaye, and stars Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankolé, Christopher Lambert, and Nicolas Duvauchelle.

Reminding you where you are

"These whites, these dirty whites.  They scorn us.  We risk our lives for them!  They're a bunch of upstarts.  Pretentious, arrogant, ignorant.  They don't deserve this land."

Maria (Isabelle Huppert) is barely audible before we hear these lines delivered in a low roar over the soundtrack.  They are spoken aloud to no one in particular, and we wonder just who they are talking about.  At first listen, given the way White Material opens on the dread-laced discovery of the dead rebel fighter known as The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), she seems to be talking about the fellow whites who stand over the black countrymen of this unnamed African land.  But as we watch her on each day’s routine, and see the careless way she plays with the lives of those people, we come to realize she is as implicated in the eventual slaughter of innocents as those who directly abuse the black countrymen.

Claire Denis, with a key assist in playwright and screenwriter Marie NDiaye, has accomplished something I thought nearly impossible.  She manages to capture the rage and ignorance of unbridled racism through the passive lens of poetic cinema.  So often movies about race deal with the violent implications of racism through fiery speeches and historic clashes.  Denis’ target is more elusive - and potentially more poisonous that overt racism – the benign racism of the noble liberal.  This person who thinks they are working in the best interests of those who feel the pain and torment of oppression on a daily basis but does not work to change the system which produces it.

To that end, Denis has drained the life out of the nameless African country.  The fact that the country is nameless creates a timelessness to the struggle here.  Just so there were always people directly exploiting the land, there are those who think they are helping but just fanning the fires, and the true countrymen who are left squabbling over the remaining scraps.  The land is not painted in a gorgeous brush, as recently seen in the gorgeous cinematography in Mr. Turner, but the greens are pale and unhealthy, more dust than we might expect is kicked up in a supposedly fertile land as the sun beats down, and the tall grass forms a cage more than once for those who unwarily wander within it.

With the fate of at least one character clear from the start, it frees us to wonder whose hands might have guided the departed to a less violent end.

With the fate of at least one character clear from the start, Denis frees us to consider whose hands might have guided the departed to a less violent end.

White Material’s landscape is not hostile, but sad.  Hostility comes from the subtle ferocity of Maria and the more overt violence of her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle).  He projects a callous nature, and when he is stripped and left for dead in the countryside it is hard to muster much sympathy, especially as he shaves off his hair and stuffs it down the mouth of a black girl.  But later he helps hungry children loot a store, and smiles with a fresh joy which was absent in his earlier interactions.  Yet to reverse that, the store was his families.  But did his family ever have the right to this economic power in the community?  Manuel is but one of many characters who display seemingly contradictory traits, but really just show how we’re a complex web of impulses.

So what to make of The Boxer, whose fate we know from the cold corpse of the opening scene, and his relatively sedentary existence as he lay wounded in the home?  The Boxer, much like the other countrymen, invites us with his mystery to examine the effects Maria and her family have on the lives of the people.  He dies because of the arrogance of a white man which Maria showed clear hate for in the opening lines, but The Boxer is still in danger in the home precisely because of Maria’s continued insistence that she can work things out in the land.  Some of the other negative consequences require careful scrutiny of the information in the dialogue and the images onscreen.  The poor black woman whose mouth Manuel fills with hair is the mother of Maria’s ex-husband’s (Christopher Lambert) other child, and she is a servant.  How is this any different from slavery?

As the questions pile we continue searching the cinematography for clues about the festering disease underneath.  None is so clear, or as striking, as the appearance of a decapitated cow’s head mixed in with the coffee beans Maria hopes to harvest.  Her actions immediately thereafter are important, as the sight of death in the midst of the red beans should have clued her in to how much the countrymen wanted her there, but instead she buries the head and tries to get her ex-husband to forget about it.  Maria’s blindness continues to push the consequences of her role in the country away as she hides behind her false sense of moral superiority.

Isolation and death in the midst of life.

Isolation and death in the midst of life.

Superiority which, in Huppert’s performance, is like a dream once pleasant now made terrifying.  She glides across the fields, is unhurried in the face of violence, growls her complaints against the whites while giving stern direction to the blacks.  Bankolé’s Boxer has a stoic resignation which works as a subtle critique of the way Huppert’s Maria composes herself.  He moves with silence, disturbs little, and works with the people to achieve his goals.  We wonder what peace he might have been capable of if he had Maria’s power.

But even The Boxer is a sinful mortal.  He kills children, who have been enlisted in the war through force and terror, but children all the same.  When violence erupts in White Material it is dispassionate, and the camera swerves and cuts away just before the crucial blow or bullet.  This forces us to consider the act without getting caught up in the passion, and wonder if anyone is right at all.

Is Maria’s violence an exception?  Perhaps.  But it is more likely she recognizes in the target of her rage the bits of poison which she unwittingly unleashed onto the land in the lives she led to their deaths – all because she thought she knew better, better than those other arrogant whites.  Whatever the answers are, Denis isn’t telling.  She just draws us into the world, gives us just enough distance from the characters to feel the heat rising from their skin, and lament the death they bring.

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Tail - White MaterialWhite Material (2009)

Directed by Claire Denis.
Screenplay written by Claire Denis and Marie NDiaye.
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankolé, Christopher Lambert, and Nicolas Duvauchelle.

Posted by Andrew

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