Monday, March 14, 2011

White Material ***

Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankolé
Nicholas Duvauchelle, Christopher Lambert, Michel Subor

Claire Denis doesn't care if you get her movies. This is the reason why they often arrive surrounded by a mass of critical acclaim and audience indifference. These movies aren't made for everyone and Denis more than anyone else seems to know it.
Why then, you might ask, is she making movies?
Completely ignoring the fact that films are regarded by some as spectacles and entertainment, Denis seems to look at them like public exorcisms. This is what she thinks, this is what she sees and you can see it with her if you want.
She's one of the few working directors who always comes up with bewitching images: whether it be through her fixation on the animalistic beauty of the male body, intimate closeups of her actresses or sparse landscapes that contain more beauty precisely because they lack decoration.
She does all this in White Material, a haunting story that takes place in an unnamed African country where civil war has broken, dividing the country into three major segments: the militia, the rebels and the white colonialists still living in the country.
Among these colonialists is Maria (Huppert), a farmer who runs her ex-husband's (Lambert) coffee plantation and struggles to find workers to look after the land.
Why is she running her ex-husband's plantation? This is one of those, very European, things that just "are".
Joining Maria for the ride are her ex-husband's ill father (Subor), and her son Manuel (Duvauchelle) who spends the day sleeping and is what his mother calls "a disappointment". It's Manuel who in fact, takes the film's most altering change when, after a symbolic castration at the hand of two children, decides to take matters into his own hands by arming himself with a rifle, shaving his head and setting out to seek his own version of justice.
This change, from someone we'd known as inert, is one of the ways in which Denis suggests the shocking power of political insanity.
The movie remains rather distant from this perspective; Denis is never one to tell her audiences what to think or even what she's thinking.
If there are any political implications in the film they come from the very notion that as human beings in a society, we are expected to take part in political processes, whether we like them or not.
She also avoids making any declarations on black-white dynamics in colonized countries. In fact, more often than not we find ourselves wondering what is Maria still doing in a country where she's not wanted.
We are told that her plantation has stopped making a profit, yet throughout the film, Maria fights to keep it alive. Is this perhaps a symbol of Imperialist countries resisting the idea of change?
If so, then we have to wonder what lies behind this notion of owning land that was never meant to be yours. Speaking from a very shallow perspective, Maria probably inherited the rights to this land, but it probably was taken away from locals in an unjust manner generations before (the movie doesn't bother telling us the time period either).
Therefore what we see with Maria's character goes beyond the romantic notions proclaimed in films like Out of Africa, where political change is nothing but a peripheral detail in the perpetuation of Western values.
The tenacious Huppert possesses Maria in the opposite way in which her character owns the land. She makes her every move, her every thought and her every action completely her own. We wonder why is she doing the things she does and what benefit does she think she'll find in resisting change and risking her life. Huppert makes us understand that Maria has made her decision; her motives are completely her own and she doesn't need to justify them to us.
Is her character capricious? Perhaps. We get a glimpse of this when Manuel goes on his mission and she lies to her ex-husband by telling him the young man is home.
We also see her hiding a goat's severed head, sent to her as a warning. Why does she insist on keeping this farm?
When the movie begins we see her finding her way back to the plantation with fierce conviction and even desperation. She is warned by soldiers and rebels that she has nothing to do back there.
We later learn that these events actually take place later in the story and needless to say so, they don't really make a difference. Denis creates characters who are who they are and never really go through awkward epiphanies. Even Manuel, who suffers the most drastic change, goes beyond representing ridiculous notions of "waking up" (we first meet him sleeping and after leaving the bed he never goes back).
It's as of all these characters have seeds planted deep within them that we never saw being planted and therefore the harvesting makes no obvious sense to us.
We never know what would await Maria back in France, we're just witnesses to her firmness in staying where she thinks she belongs, regardless of the consequences.
And then there's the constant presence of a radio that spreads its ideas with cynical relentlessness. To some these messages become venom that encourage violence (in fact it's fascinating to realize that the only time when the radio is off is immediately after a scene of unexpected violence) but to some others, the ideas that come out of this machine are nothing but messages of hope.
Subtly, Denis reminds us of the power of the media in times of global crisis. She refrains from saying if this influence is positive or detrimental and instead chooses just to let us see and then make our own conclusions.
This is cinema of the highest form: the one that refuses to dilute and sugarcoat its ideas but resorts to aesthetic precision in order to convey the fact that art hasn't lost its ability take us to a higher echelon.


Amir said...

i think the main reason i was so transfixed when i was watching it was the accompanying soundtrack by tindersticks.
they've long been one of my favourite bands (and i liked their soundtrack for denis' trouble everyday as well) but this was just haunting.

and as you say (that it doesn't deal explicitly with the racial dynamics) i think its apolitical approach to politics is what fascinated me. i'm really a sucker for films like that since i grew up with iranian films that can't deal directly with politics because of censorship. clever artistic observations on events that "reflect" politics rather than "explain" it have always interested me.
but then again, here, maybe it's not so much because denis avoids politics per se, as she avoids many expositions in general, but anyway...
loved this film. it places at number 5 on my favourites of last year.

Amir said...

p.s. "This is one of those, very European, things that just "are"."

best think i've read this week. haha

Jose said...

Yup, Denis has this awesome knack for saying a lot by avoiding twice as much.
Interesting about the Iranian films, never had thought of it like that. I guess Denis would've felt at home making subversive movies during the Golden Age of cinema, where you couldn't say anything controversial basically.

P.S: glad you enjoyed that, honestly had no better way of explaining it hehe. said...

It can't succeed in fact, that's what I believe.