Claire Denis returns to Africa in “White Material,” a powerful recognition of the continent’s tragic present that focuses on a white plantation owner desperate to hold on to her land, despite roving militias and child soldiers. Unsurprisingly devoid of the kind of faux-liberal displacement/wish fulfillment or colonialist superiority that mars so many First World treatments of the subject, Denis’ film views the continent as a kind of drug, intoxicating yet perilous, that never leaves the system. Euro arthouse play with a limited Stateside release is certain, though it’s unlikely to be embraced in the same way as “35 Shots of Rum.”
Parallels will instantly be made with Denis’ first film, “Chocolat,” especially because of the white-woman-in-Africa viewpoint and the presence of thesp Isaac De Bankole. But she’s not interested in making the country (unspecified) seductive, and desire is not on the menu, at least not the sexual kind. The land is in the grip of civil war, and Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is urged by departing French soldiers to take her family and get out. She’s dismissive of these “dirty whites,” muttering that they don’t deserve to be there, but this inner strength of hers is tied to a willful blindness.
On a motorbike, she stretches out her arms as if channeling the African sun directly through her hands; later on, she dismissively bats away the suggestion that she leave, saying, “How could I show courage in France?” The plantation is owned by her quasi-invalid ex-father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor), who recognizes that she’s far stronger than his son, her former husband, Andre (Christophe Lambert). Maria and Andre’s son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is a slacker whom she defends against all criticism, her understanding of his true character as distorted as her comprehension of the dangers around them.
Child soldiers inflict terror in the region as they search for the man they want as their leader, “the Boxer” (De Bankole). Meanwhile, the official army is attempting to win back territory, and the mayor (William Nadylam) confidently sits back with his private militia, certain he’ll come out on top. Through all this, Maria surges forward, convinced that since she’s successfully faced down danger before, she and her family can weather this tempest, too.
Toward the pic’s end, as the young militants, together with Manuel, scavenge the ground consuming pills they’ve plundered from massacred pharmacists, Denis makes literal her point about the addictive nature of the African soil. Maria is not someone to envy or admire: She’s incapable of facing the seriousness of the anarchy around her due to a toxic dependence on the land and the life she leads there. While the black villagers appear worn down by resigned trepidation, Maria’s confidence in the ultimate inviolability of the white plantation owner obscures all rational judgment and blinds her to her family’s decadence.
Structurally, “White Material” (the English-language title is a pejorative reference to whites in Africa) unfolds like a novel, undoubtedly partly due to the work of Denis’ co-scripter, author Marie N’Diaye. That said, it’s still very much a Denis film, not just in the complexity of the characters and their motivations — Huppert shoulders the narrative effortlessly, her strength and direction unwavering — but in the framework and editing. Denis uses a new (for her) d.p., Yves Cape (who’s worked with Bruno Dumont and Patrice Chereau), and while his lensing is perhaps less rich than one would expect from Agnes Godard, it suits the material, conveying the druglike pull of the people and the landscape without glamorizing them. As usual, the elegiac and restrained music is beautifully integrated.