Isabelle Huppert is mesmerising as a French coffee plantation owner refusing to budge from a West Africa riven with civil war in Claire Denis’ immersive new drama. “Gripped me from start to finish.” — Sight & Sound
Screened as part of NZIFF 2010
Over the past 22 years, Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) has built up one of the most impressive bodies of work in contemporary cinema. Her latest confronts one of her specialist topics – the aftermath of French colonialism – head on.
White Material marks a return to West Africa, the setting of Denis’ first feature, Chocolat, and brings the star of that film, Jarmusch favourite Isaach de Bankolé, along for the wild ride. It also marks her first collaboration with the great Isabelle Huppert.
Huppert gives a tough, physical performance as Maria Vial, the manager of a coffee plantation determined to stand her ground while everyone and everything around her is urging her to flee. The departing French forces drop survival kits, her workers walk off the land, but Maria stubbornly refuses to budge until the coffee is harvested. She claims that she only needs one week, but in such turbulent times one week can be a lifetime. As civil society degenerates into chaos and the government militia clashes with rebel forces on her doorstep, her situation, and that of her family, becomes increasingly desperate.
Chaos is a hard thing to deliver onscreen while maintaining control over big ideas and small character details. Denis accomplishes this difficult task with her typical skill, combining a slightly fragmented, elliptical narrative structure with images of stark emotional directness and sometimes chilling intimacy, pitilessly exploring the devastated landscapes of the war-torn country and her characters’ bodies. And all the while, the film maintains a breathless tension as our dread of imminent catastrophe builds. — AL
“There is much for cineastes to savour in this sophisticated, intelligent, extremely classy piece of work.” — Steve Garden, The Lumiere Reader