Saturday, October 12, 2013

White Material (The Criterion Collection) (2009)

White MaterialThere are some filmmakers that make you work a little harder as a viewer. This is certainly not a negative thing. There probably aren't enough films that require an audience to actively engage and be invested in the structure of what is presented. Having set several previous efforts against an African backdrop, writer/director Claire Denis returns to familiar terrain with "White Material." With its jumbled timeline and shifting narrative focus, "White Material" is classic Denis for good and, in some cases, bad. I frequently love Denis--"Beau Travail" being my personal favorite, but I know many people that are perpetually confounded by her work. "White Material" is a story you have to piece together as the film progresses. It's not particularly complex or confusing, however, it just takes a while to unfold the basic plot into a more recognizable format.

"White Material" centers around Isabelle Huppert as a coffee plantation wife. Set amidst an African country being ripped apart by Civil War, Huppert is struggling to bring in her crops even as her world is on the precipice. Refusing to leave, as she is being compelled to do so by everyone, you might say that she has more determination than good sense. Her husband is trying to make an escape plan, her son is losing his tenuous grasp on reality, and those closest to her are fleeing. Even with the rebels on top of her, she refuses to see the light. Needless to say, you probably don't need a map to chart the course of this grim story. Huppert, a fearless actress, is always compelling--but it's hard to elicit much sympathy for her plight with her cavalier disregard of the real world danger her family is in. Christopher Lambert (yes, from "Highlander" fame) is on hand as Huppert's husband, but it's Nicolas Duvauchelle who all but steals the picture as her increasingly unhinged son!

In an unusual choice, Denis provides almost no context for "White Material." Set in an unnamed African country during an unspecified timeframe (presumably it's contemporary), this lack of identification keeps the viewer oddly detached from the brutality in the film. Without historical, social, or political background--there is no distinguishing between the struggle of the rebels versus the fight of the militia. Perhaps this was Denis' intention, but it causes a remoteness from the onscreen drama. The only thing we know for sure is that Huppert and clan have no place in the new world order--whichever side ends up the victor. The only one who obstinately refuses to see this point is Huppert herself.

The Criterion presentation includes features such as new interviews with Denis and actors Huppert and Isaach de Bankolé, a short documentary by Denis on the film's premiere at the Écrans Noirs Film Festival 2010 in Cameroon, and a deleted scene. If you aren't familiar with Denis' work, I'm not sure that "White Material" is the place to start. I admired much of the film but remained strangely apathetic to everyone in the movie. In the end, there's no one to root for and no one you've come to identify with....and that leaves a chilly detachment at the end of what might have been a harrowing and powerful examination of the death of European colonialism. While I have decidedly mixed feelings about "White Material," I definitely recommend revisiting past Denis (in fact, love to see a couple of titles for sure picked up by Criterion!) 3 1/2 stars, I'll round up for the inspired performance by Duvauchelle. KGHarris, 1/11.

WHITE MATERIAL (the term is defined as all things owned by or being 'white' in a black culture) is a strange little film by the highly respected Claire Denis who wrote (with Marie N'Diaye and Lucie Borleteau) and directed this rather timeless, non-specifically placed study of disintegration of family and life somewhere in Africa. Perhaps not giving a time frame or more information about the politics of the place where this film takes place is meant to metaphorical, but for many viewers it will make the story more of a conundrum than is necessary.

Maria Vial (the extraordinary actress Isabelle Huppert) runs a coffee plantation owned by her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor): the plantation has seen better economic days and Maria's former husband André (Christophe Lambert) who not only offers no help to the plantation but is trying to sell it before it goes bankrupt: Andrés also has taken another woman Lucie (Adèle Ado) and has a young son by her. Maria's only child Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a tattooed loser and probably his unstable mind is due to drug abuse. So it is Maria by herself that is in charge of the plantation.

There is a political uprising with rebels, led by Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), destroying all the white material seen to be the evil of the country. Maria sides with Boxer, protecting him from the ruling corrupt government, and as the people Maria has employed on her plantation flee because of the insurrection, Maria is repeatedly warned to return to France an idea she finds repugnant and will do anything to save her land. She gathers a few frightened people to harvest her coffee beans, but as she is processing the beans she uncovers a severed goat head in the beans a sign of doom. Maria must fight to save her home and in the end her choices are altered by a vile deed that shows how far she has fallen in her attempt to change her personal destiny: she has lost her business, her son has gone completely mad, and her former husband and her father-in-law fail to aid her plight. Even giving aid to Boxer, the chief of the rebels, fails to alter her plight.

The film is confusing in that there is not enough history or information about place so that the message seems to be that all of Africa is always in turmoil and that the conflict between blacks and whites is a constant. Real history does not support that act and the reality of the people of that continent deserve better, Isabelle Huppert is always outstanding, but even in this situation her character is a bit monotonous. The musical by Stuart Staples is outstanding, possibly the best aspect of this film that could have been much better. In French with English subtitles. Grady Harp, April 11

Buy White Material (The Criterion Collection) (2009) Now

I saw this film when it first came out, and have now viewed it for a second time. There is an atmosphere of menace in this picture that is immediately recognizable, that becomes increasingly palpable as the film progresses. As the picture gains momentum, the characters surrounding the defiantly determined Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), begin to play out their personal vendettas and the dominoes start to fall. There are creepy scenes with child soldiers stealthily entering the dwellings of the plantation compound, taking jewelry, clothes and whatever else they find to be of value. Everyone is under surveillance, hiding in plain sight, fearing for their lives; the African soldiers are killing not just the whites, but also their own people as anarchy descends.

Isabelle Huppert, as Maria, gives an understated performance; in an interview featured on the supplemental material of this DVD, she explains that Maria does not show any emotion. Maria is described, on the back cover of the DVD, as being "ferocious" and a "crazed character". But after watching Huppert's performance, neither of those descriptions seem appropriate. Maria is tenacious yet impassive; it's as if the high stakes of Maria's situation demand stoicism. It is not until near the end of the film, when her world has collapsed, that we see any evidence of her being crazed or ferocious. Huppert's performance is one of quiet desperation, of internal crumbling, of someone refusing to recognize the harsh reality confronting her. Huppert is a chameleon who blends into the ambiance of any picture she appears in; she achieves this in "White Material" as well.

Christophe Lambert also gives a strong and understated performance as André, Maria's husband, who is afraid and urgently suggests to Maria that they escape the plantation; and yet he is also trapped. The frightening breakdown of Manuel, Maria's spoiled brat son (portrayed by Nicolas Duvauchelle) is another crucial aspect of the film; hs is the primary underminer, who through his destructive actions, initiates and increases the momentum of the downward spiral of the plantation. In the final twenty minutes of the film, Maria puts on a pink dress, which functions as a metaphor for her fragility. The score by Tindersticks, composed specifically for this picture, provides a moody, alternative counterpoint that underlines the atmosphere of desolation. Highlights of the supplemental material of this DVD include interviews with Claire Denis, who I found to be compelling in person; and with Isabelle Huppert (that I already mentioned), in which she discusses her character Maria.

I have not seen any other pictures by Claire Denis, and so I cannot compare this film to her other work. After seeing "White Material", I would classify her as a documentarian of a brutal hyperreality, which manifests in "White Material" as the death and destruction that moves like a wildfire across the countryside to devour the Vial coffee plantation and the world of Maria Vial and her family. Based on the strength of "White Material", I am interested in seeing Claire Denis' other films.

Stephen C. Bird, author of "Hideous Exuberance: A Satire"

Read Best Reviews of White Material (The Criterion Collection) (2009) Here

As of this very moment I have only seen two films by South African native Claire Denis (`White Material' and '50 Shots of Rum') and both films are cinematic marvels; true masterpieces. Of the two, I think that I prefer `White Material', a film that is equal parts shocking and aggressive as well as soft and intimate.

`White Material' tells the story of Maria Vial, a woman running a coffee plantation in South Africa during civil unrest. As violence closes in around Maria and her family, she balks at the cautions directed at her and continues to persist in her everyday affairs, despite beings met with opposition from all fronts. The scenario definitely plays with her sanity, especially as the war surrounding her starts to take devastating effect on those she loves and tries to protect. With her husband turning on her and her son delving into his own state of madness, Maria is forced to fight alone, but her fighting spirit can only take her so far.

All is lost.

Instead of dampening the film with details that take us out of the story in an attempt to expound upon it, Claire Denis takes a more simplistic approach, allowing the impact of the characters themselves to envelope the audience. As some have already mentioned, there is no backdrop given here. We are simply dropped into a situation and left to fend for ourselves to make heads or tails of it. That could have been a very bad thing had the direction not been so sharply effective. Instead of feeling confused and or befuddled, Denis paints a rather straightforward picture that needs to backstory to feel intimate and provocative. The lack of detail leaves a lasting stain of chaos that effortlessly soaks into the fabric of the tale being told.

Atop the brilliance that is Denis (her directorial hand is so magnificently used to relay emotional relevance, especially in sequences of distilled tension such as that breathtaking scene between Maria's son and the two young boys), the actors here all make a splash, especially Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert, who plays her son. Huppert suppresses the madness brewing within Maria with such frenetic tension. You can feel it itching beneath her skin. Lambert is flawless in his transition from apathetic to completely barbaric, and it never once feels betrayed by inaccuracy. He feels completely authentic from start to finish.

Some have found the lack of detail or the shifting timelines and the unresolved nature of certain plot developments to be a deterrent, but I find them central components to the creation of a film that has lodged itself in my mind, visually and emotionally, and continues to dwell there. There is a mystery that comes from a lack of complete understanding, and while some films demand answers to sell their themes and messages, `White Material' is the type of film that can thrive off of audience interpretation of events, and the suddenness of the films conclusion is a spectacular way of making the audience work for an answer; work for their own cinematic satisfaction. Contemplation and meditation will follow a work as staggering as this one, and it is for that, that I simply cannot recommend this film enough.

It stays with you, and will haunt your dreams.

Want White Material (The Criterion Collection) (2009) Discount?

A languid and slow paced film most likely to appeal to those with an interest in political/historical dramas. This one covers a violent conflict between wealthy French settlers and the indigenous peoples of a poverty-ridden African nation in the throes of a revolution for self-rule. Actually, neither side in this conflict is presented in a sympathetic way. But the movie itself will be of sufficient interest to viewers attuned to geopolitical changes and upheavals.

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