A nightmare from which no one awakes, Claire Denis’ White Material (2009) takes place in a nameless African country teetering on the brink of all-out civil war. It is the veteran French director’s toughest work, unsparing with its characters and its audience, a horror film ripped, as they say, from the headlines. Yet like everything Denis has created, it is shot through with tenderness, beauty, and an aching sense of loss.
The film’s setting could be any currently or formerly war-torn African country—Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and many others sadly fit the bill. A civil war is brewing. It is nothing as vast as the genocide in Rwanda or the ten years of mass rape and murder in Congo: merely marauding rebels, most of them children and young teens, challenging government forces for control and careless with the lives of anyone who crosses their path, regardless of the color of their skin. A decade or two after the end of colonialism, the former ruling class is no longer welcome. Most French whites have departed, but a few hold on, in denial about the fact that they’ve lost their power or, in the case of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the coffee plantation that belongs to her ex-husband’s family, too in love with the land to which she has devoted all her energy to give up. And where would she go? Maria can’t accept that, for the Africans she’s known all her life, she is now “white material,” easy to dispose of and less than human.
Of Denis’ more than a dozen feature-length films, only three—her debut feature, Chocolat (1988); Beau travail (1999), widely regarded as her masterpiece; and now White Material—have been set entirely in French West Africa, where she lived from the time she was a month old until she was thirteen, the child of French civil servants and teachers, posted in various colonies during these impressionable years for their daughter. All her films, however, deal with race, difference, displacement, and with the fascination (fear and desire) one feels toward the other, even when that other is one’s self. In an interview, she told me that she never felt at home in Africa and had no greater sense of belonging in the Paris suburb of her teenage years. It is from this doubly alienated position that she makes her films. After graduating from film school in Paris, she worked her way up the production ladder and came to the U.S. as an assistant director to Wim Wenders. During the making of Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), she began to write the script for Chocolat. It took four years to finance the film, and she spent part of that time working for Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law (1986). Jarmusch was part of the No Wave New York film and music scene, which was a crucial influence on her work.
Chocolat is the first film in a loose-knit trilogy that also includes No Fear, No Die (1990) and I Can’t Sleep (1994), the second set in Marseilles, the third in Paris. They depict the intersections of African, Caribbean, and French culture in the aftermath of colonialism. If Denis’ films make people nervous—and they do—it is in part because they level the gaze of a white woman at black men. Indeed, it has often seemed as if Denis makes films to break the taboo around women looking—the woman behind the camera and the women on the screen. In later films, such as the bittersweet adolescent brother-sister comedy Nenette and Boni (1996); Beau travail, a lyrical transposition of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to an outpost of the French Foreign Legion; the romantic fantasy Friday Night (2002); and the epic fever dream The Intruder (2004), white men and white women as well are the subjects of Denis’ strikingly intimate yet never intrusive vision, through which skin, psyche, and soul become one. “You are the woman who makes the sexy films,” said Wong Kar-wai, another connoisseur of longing looks and frustrated desire, when he was introduced to her at the Cannes Film Festival.
Although many critics claimed that White Material was some kind of sequel to Chocolat, the two films are as distant from each other as the historical periods in which they are set. The most autobiographical of Denis’ films, Chocolat is couched as a memory piece set in colonial Cameroon. It involves a complex web of power, desire, friendship, and betrayal. A young French girl’s relationship with the African “houseboy” who is her protector and closest friend is disrupted when her mother punishes him for resisting her seduction. Chocolat is a love story, however thwarted the desires of everyone involved. In White Material, love and even sexual desire are notable for their absence. There is only the threat of rape, a matter of violence and intimidation rather than eroticism.
All of Denis’ films before White Material dealt with desire, whether or not fulfilled, and its puzzling relation to love. The stark difference between this previous work and White Material can be crystallized by comparing the latest film to 35 Shots of Rum (2008), with which it was made almost in tandem. That film centers on the relationship between a widowed father of African descent and his mixed-race daughter, living in an integrated Paris neighborhood. The father has raised the daughter on his own, knowing that one day she will marry and leave him—probably for the young man who lives upstairs. The love—familial and romantic, and the gradations between—that fills 35 Shots of Rum cannot exist in the fear-filled environment of White Material, where the struggle for power consumes the people and the land. Juxtaposed, the two films also suggest the extent to which the circumstances we are born into determine our experience and identity.
For Maria Vial, for all the Vials, for all the French colonizers of Africa, time has finally run out. Denis and her coscreenwriter, novelist Marie NDiaye, therefore construct White Material as an oscillating, shuddering nightmare in which time in the usual narrative sense has no meaning. Shot with a constantly moving camera (sometimes handheld, sometimes on a fixed base) and elliptically edited with few clues to causality or chronology, White Material evokes a world on the brink of chaos and conflagration. Even the landscape seems out of control, at once overgrown and desiccated.
The first words we hear, “The Boxer! He’s dead all right,” are uttered by barely visible government soldiers whose flashlights have discovered the body of a man with a face even more imposing in death than Che’s was. As the movie progresses in series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that eventually return us to that moment of discovery and slightly beyond, we learn that the mysterious and charismatic rebel leader known as the Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé, who played Protée, the houseboy, in Chocolat) was wounded and then briefly reunited with the child soldiers who follow him like their own pied piper. He takes refuge in the sprawling compound of the Vials’ coffee plantation, where he is secreted and intermittently tended to by Maria, who perhaps sees in him a mirror of her own desperation. That the death of the Boxer is known from the first gives the narrative the weight of inevitability, even of classical tragedy, despite the fact that the character operates only on its periphery and we know nothing about him other than that he is worshipped by his followers and on his way to becoming a myth as he slowly bleeds to death from a bullet hole in his belly. Gobbling down the pills they’ve stolen from the African pharmacists they’ve murdered, the child soldiers also make their way to the near-deserted plantation, where they fall into a drugged stupor amid heaps of stuffed animals discarded by the Vials’ doomed progeny, only to be slaughtered in their sleep by government soldiers. Denis treats the Boxer and the child soldiers with great tenderness but without sentimentality. Neither explaining nor judging their actions, she simply bears witness by constructing images that, in their visual lyricism, are explanations of why things matter. In interview after interview, she has emphasized that “the Boxer’s soldiers kill, but they are first of all children.”
If the terrifying and pitiable child soldiers give the film its reason for being, its anchor and our mediator is Maria, played by Huppert with a control freak’s ferocity that her girlish pink gingham dress does nothing to hide. Listening to her plea for help in finding her son, the district mayor (William Nadylam), in a gesture more threatening than affectionate, touches the blonde hair that he says “brings bad luck” and tells her, in effect, that she and her son are not welcome, despite their love of the land: “This is his country. He was born here. But it doesn’t like him.” Or her. In denial about the fact that she is doubly dispossessed—her former father-in-law has signed over to the mayor the land that he promised she would inherit, and for both sides in the impending civil war, she and the dissolute men of the Vial family are disposable white material—she remains fiercely, insanely determined to harvest the coffee, cajoling new workers to replace those who’ve fled, priming the backup generator after her ex-husband’s young, mixed-race son cuts the plantation’s main power lines (her own son shaves off his hair, skinhead-style, and deludes himself that he is the new leader of the child soldiers). In a situation that has long since gone out of control, she attempts through sheer will to forestall the inevitable. Huppert carries the film on a rail-thin, sinewy body cranked into frantic overdrive by repressed fear and rage. The repressed will return with a homicidal explosion as shocking as it is logical. Huppert has often played characters with similar psychological dynamics, but she has seldom combined physical action with emotional intensity as she does here.
While White Material and Chocolat are separated from each other by the passage from colonialism to nationalism in Africa and by Denis’ development from a novice director into one of the greatest contemporary film artists, the films end with sequences that speak to the same point. At the close of Chocolat, we see a group of African airport workers, and we try to discern whether among them can be found Protée, newly liberated from colonialist oppression. The last image in White Material is of a teenage rebel soldier in a red beret rising, gun in hand, from his hiding place in the brush. The boy is hardly more of a character than the anonymous airport workers; nevertheless, they all—and everyone else on whom Denis trains her camera—have a flesh-and-blood reality beyond any metaphoric significance. The future of Africa belongs to them, to do with what they will.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum. This piece was adapted from one that appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Film Comment.