Dir: Claire Denis. 2009. France. 102 mins.

White Material

French auteur Claire Denis returns to the subject of French colonials in Africa - the same theme as her first feature, Chocolat, in 1987 – in White Material, only this time the setting is an un-named country in contemporary times during a violent rebellion.

Featuring Isabelle Huppert as the fearless matriarch determined to keep her coffee plantation going against all the odds, the film is deliberately paced, richly atmospheric and for the most part riveting, only stumbling in its third act, as Denis and cowriter Marie NDiaye opt to wrap it up with Heart Of Darkness-style mayhem.

Audiences could react poorly to the stubbornness of Huppert’s character in the face of impending and inevitable doom

It’s a tough film, with neither Huppert’s driven lead nor any of the slackers around her generating much sympathy, but sales should be solid in the arthouse sphere on the names of both Denis and Huppert and the explosive nature of the story. Denis, of course, is now a festival fixture and the Venice/Toronto launchpad will propel it around the festival circuit before a French release early in 2010.

Maria Vial (Huppert) is a headstrong woman in the final stages of harvesting the coffee on her plantation when the army starts to reimpose order on a rebellion in the country (which could be Cameroon, but is never specified). She lives with her lazy son Manuel (Duvauchelle), her ex-husband Andre (Lambert) and his wife Lucie (Adele Ado) as well as her father-in-law Henri (Subor) who built the plantation and has essentially bequeathed it to her.

But with just one week of harvesting the crop to go, many of her workers are fleeing to avoid the escalating violence between rebels and army, who are determined to locate the chief of the insurgents nicknamed The Boxer. Determined to keep going through the troubles, Maria hires new workers although she is unaware that the feeble Andre is trying to sell the plantation from under her nose to the corrupt local mayor (Nadylam)

When armed children almost kill Manuel, his already fragile mental state explodes, he shaves his head and takes up a gun himself. Meanwhile The Boxer (de Bankole), who has been shot, has taken refuge in the main house and the army starts closing in on the plantation.

Beautifully shot by Yves Cape, the film captures the horrors of the civil struggle and especially the violence inflicted and suffered by children (to whom Denis dedicates the film). But in Huppert’s character, she also studies the colonialist, who believes herself almost more native than the native population. And in the family around Maria, Denis shows an almost Shakespearian collection of ne’er-do-wells who have almost found a refuge from life itself in Africa. The title refers to how the rebels refer to both the white people and their possessions.

Audiences could react poorly to the stubbornness of Huppert’s character in the face of impending and inevitable doom, but Maria’s ferocious determination is just one step away from the madness that has gripped both her family and her adopted country. Her final actions are ambiguous and open to interpretation; indeed after a film of very measured pacing, Denis rushes the finale, leaving much unexplained in a swirl of killing.

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Production companies
Why Not Productions
France 3 Cinema
Wild Bunch
Les Films Terre Africaine

World sales
Wild Bunch
+ 331 53 01 50 30

Pascal Caucheteux

Claire Denis
Marie NDiaye

Yves Cape

Production design
Saint Pere Abiassi
Alain Veissier

Guy Lecorne

Stuart S Staple (Tindersticks)

Main cast
Isabelle Huppert
Isaach de Bankole
Christophe Lambert
Nicolas Duvauchelles
William Nadylam
Michel Subor