Claire Denis’s latest film marks a return to origin both thematically and personally for the filmmaker (her debut 1988 feature Chocolat was similarly set in colonial Africa). Filmed in Cameroon (although time and place remain characteristically imprecise), White Material is set during a civil war between militia and rebel armies where civilians are caught in the crossfire. Related in a fragmentary and oneiric style, the film offers a mesmerising and poetic evocation of a land that is disintegrating and unravelling into chaos. At the heart of this tale is a coffee plantation owner named Maria (a magnificent Isabelle Huppert) who is desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of a world that is already in disarray. More specifically, Maria (along with her ‘broken’ family) is a troubling presence on screen; she may be representative of a bygone era through her familial connections, but she is also someone for whom ‘Africa’, in the broadest sense, is ‘home’. For every character in the film, to lose one’s point of origin is to lose everything, resulting in an intense madness and destruction that inevitably leads to death. Violence in White Material is a bleak and futile force that overcomes child and adult alike and serves neither side of the conflict any good. Indeed, the film’s most shocking sequence shows the cold, calculated brutalisation of one of the main characters at the hands of two very young children. However, Denis is too intelligent and philosophical an artist to structure her films around a moral framework or ‘message’. As with her greatest work, White Material is built upon seemingly incidental details, what remains unspoken, unidentified or unrecognised, the scrutiny of body and landscape alike and the blurring of definitions and boundaries. This rich work rewards repeated viewing and is highly recommended.
GFT, Glasgow and selected release from Fri 2 Jul.