19 July 2010
In her previous film 35 SHOTS OF RUM, Claire Denis focused on a father and daughter of African descent living in France; here, she shifts her attention to a French family who owns a coffee plantation in Africa. Whereas race and living as a minority in an adopted homeland provided only a subtext in the earlier film, it's at the dead center of this one. Maria (Isabelle Huppert), who entered this business (and continent) via marriage, manages the plantation. When the French military exits the region due to war among local tribes, she disregards their warnings to follow, determined to hold on to this life she's so invested in. Initially, her steadfastness appears admirable and brave, but as blatant hostility towards the family escalates, her actions merely seem stubborn and not without hubris (although Huppert lends her some much-needed empathy).
While Denis rarely makes the same film twice, WHITE MATERIAL feels like a different beast for the director. For all of its expected touches (another evocative Tindersticks score, the casting of Michael Subor in a small but pivotal role), it also throws in a few curveballs such as a cinematographer other than Denis regular Agnes Godard (Yves Cape, whose hand-held work is in stark contrast from Godard's poetic, gorgeous imagery) and a far more pronounced, straightforward narrative structure. I applaud Denis for leaving her comfort zone a little, and an unnerving scene where a child army slowly emerges from the dark woods is as mesmerizing as anything in her oeuvre--but I'd rather she kept the story more ambiguous, more mysterious. Apart from one shocking moment, we suspect what kind of finale the film is hurtling towards too far in advance.