Having recently ploughed through the IMDB Top 250 films, I’ve watched an awful lot of Hollywood films, so it’s a shock to watch Claire Denis’s White Material. None of the Hollywood film grammar I’ve learned applies here.
A woman stands in a threatening landscape, her back at the edge of the frame. I’m waiting for the jump-shock as a hostile actor from offscreen attacks from her blindside. Doesn’t happen – Denis’s film simply cuts to another sumptuously coloured African scene.
I’m twenty minutes into the film and wondering when the token hot girl is going to appear. Doesn’t happen – there is no token hot girl.
Charismatic male figures are introduced early on: The Boxer, a rebel leader, popular with child soldiers in this unnamed African country, an ex-husband who wants to sell up the farm and get out of the country and a corrupt local mayor. I sit back waiting for their stories to unfold and dominate the narrative. Doesn’t happen – the narrative is dominated by a woman’s story, occasionally changing to the point of view of children.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
The story centres on Maria Vial (played by Isabelle Huppert), a complex character who supervises a coffee farm. At a time of upheaval and change – early on we see the French army trying to persuade her to leave from a helicopter – she wants to stay put, at least long enough to harvest and process the current crop.
The ‘white material’ of the title is an African name for the white colonials and their belongings – now reduced to a disposable commodity. And part of the horrific compulsion of this topic of whites fighting a losing battle against the tide of change in Africa – also explored in J. M. Coetzee's novel "Disgrace" in South Africa – is the sense that no power on earth can prevent the unfolding tragedy. Liberal whites (who surely make up the bulk of this film’s viewers) are forced to watch an unstoppable human tragedy through the eyes of the last few whites being beaten up, driven out and killed. These liberals just want to look away and not have to think about all the messiness of the child soldiers, roadblocks and arbitrary cruelty – but until all the white Europeans have gone these kinds of stories force them to acknowledge the reality. And as for the Africans, the ‘white material’ is a finite resource that will quickly be exhausted and then what? The future doesn’t look bright for the locals in this film, whether or not the colonial past was just as bad.
Review continues below...
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So, playing out with its non-Hollywood grammar and beautifully shot scenes, the film traces its way through the escalating chaos and inevitable collapse of Vial’s world. The child soldiers are among the most memorable of the images from the film, the camera picking out the childishness of their features, and their pathetic military skills brutally contrasted with those of the government’s adult soldiers. The professionals are so much bigger, better trained and with automatic guns twice the size of the kids’ rifles. While the film doesn’t hide the atrocities performed by the child soldiers, there is a rather preachy, almost sentimental, aspect to their portrayal in the film. We see their victims, such as the doctor and pharmacist they kill to loot medicines, but we don’t see much of them performing the atrocities. Perhaps they rape Vial’s son, but if they do it’s done off camera. We don’t hear their shrieking voices or witness much of their callous bravado.
"For me, the child soldiers were victims. They were number one children, and only after soldiers with guns. I wanted them to be children first," Denis says in this interview.
Personal Score: 7/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.