Engulfed from the start
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Claire Denis's "White Material" is a lean and hungry thing. With the sparest of storytelling, the French filmmaker ("35 Shots of Rum") devours her audience, swallowing us up in a yarn that is as enigmatic as it is engrossing.
Set in an unnamed African state, in an unspecified time, the film centers on Maria (Isabelle Huppert), a Frenchwoman who's trying to keep her family's coffee plantation running, even as the country descends into a brutal and chaotic civil war. Her countrymen have abandoned her. Her ex-husband, Andre (Christophe Lambert), is trying to sell the farm out from under her to the town's slick and opportunistic mayor (William Nadylam). And Maria's teenage son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is teetering on the brink of madness, after a frightening encounter with some of the marauding child warriors who support the fugitive leader of the rebels, known only as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankole). That mysterious hero - or antihero?- is now holed up on Maria's property and bleeding to death.
Most intriguingly, the film opens with the Boxer already dead and Manuel trapped in a burning building. But even though we know the outcome from the start, the story is no less incendiary or consuming. Jumping around in time, with a sequence of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Denis keeps the story (written by Denis and Marie N'Diaye) interesting - no, essential - thanks mainly to Huppert, who commands the screen with a mix of ferocious power and poignant vulnerability.
You can't take your eyes off her.
If the film is political, it's hard to know exactly what its politics are. "White Material" ends with an on-screen dedication: "Aux intrepides petites marmailles, a Marie" ("To the brave little gangs of children, to Maria"). Yet how can we have it both ways?
To the underage rebels, Maria represents European colonial oppression. And to Maria, the gangs are terrorists. Her motives aren't exactly pure either. While her plantation offers employment to many, the reasons Marie wants to hold onto it so badly is portrayed, at least partly, as selfishness, if not downright insanity.
Denis's film takes no single point of view.
Or rather, it takes the point of view - argued fiercely and with conviction - that what ought to prevail in drama is not one side or the other, but the gravitational pull of the struggle itself.
Contains violence, drug use and nudity. In French with English subtitles.