Colonialism’s risky romance: Director Claire Denis returns to Africa with a vengeance
Africa is the ghost that haunts Claire Denis, and in “White Material’’ it has its claws out. The daughter of a civil servant, Denis was raised all over the continent, and beginning with her 1988 directorial debut, “Chocolat,’’ her films have puzzled over Africa, the idea of it in the French colonial imagination and all its beautiful, unforgiving realities.
Where 2008’s “35 Shots of Rum’’ was a gentle look into the lives of African immigrants living in Paris, “Material’’ is something else entirely: a ferocious allegory about the death of colonialism, set in an unnamed West African country on the brink of collapse. Government soldiers and rebels have fought each other to an exhausted standstill and bands of dead-eyed child soldiers roam the countryside.
In the midst of the chaos remains one white plantation family, defiantly anchored by Mme. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert). Her workers are fleeing, government helicopters hover overhead warning her to get the hell out, but Maria insists she can get the coffee beans harvested in time. Huppert (“Violette,’’ “The Piano Teacher’’) has built a career out of playing such obsessives, dangers to themselves and everyone around them, but Maria is a special case. She still carries the romance of Africa in her buzzing head — a romance founded on inequity and exploitation — and nothing will shake it loose. She’s Mother Courage as a self-destructive entrepreneur.
The men in Maria’s life only set her jaw more firmly. Her father-in-law (Michel Subor), the plantation’s owner, is an invalid; her weak-willed husband (Christophe Lambert) is trying to sell the business behind her back to the local warlord (William Nadylam). Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Maria’s useless teenage son, foolishly thinks he can join the rebels; his transformation from lazy Euro to skinhead berserker is the movie’s most striking yet far-fetched conceit.
The weakness of “White Material,’’ in fact, is that its characters rarely escape their assigned meanings. The most intriguing figure here is The Boxer, a legendary guerilla played by Isaach De Bankolé (who, tellingly, starred in “Chocolat’’). Powerful and leonine, the character is also functionally impotent, hiding in a plantation outbuilding and tending to wounds we already know will prove mortal. The Boxer represents the country’s last, best hope for self-rule before the coming apocalypse, but even De Bankolé’s immense charisma can’t make him more than a symbol.
What sustains the film is its tone of almost hallucinatory foreboding. “White Material’’ — the title refers to the colonialists themselves as well as their possessions, to everything that must be expelled — isn’t about the calm before the storm but the seconds before the deluge. The sense of imminent violence is remarkably orchestrated by Denis through harsh, sun-baked camerawork and a brooding score by England’s Tindersticks.
Huppert’s Maria moves through this Bosch-like landscape like a woman possessed, her tunnel vision allowing her to plow forward toward her beloved old Africa — did it ever even exist? — until the letting of blood and settling of scores come home in a finale that, unfortunately, works mostly as metaphor. Still, the brilliance of the performance is that Huppert lets us see through Maria’s towering stubbornness to the idealism beneath it, and then even further to the racist delusion at its core. “White Material’’ isn’t an easy watch, but no hard lesson should be.