For much of the first hour of White Material, director Claire Denis is careful not to let her movie — or our expectations — settle into the steady flow of narrative storytelling. She withholds facts, back stories, setups, and explanations. She jumps through time casually and without warning, leaving us with few cues for the chronological change save the clothes the characters are wearing or the extent of their physical wounds. If there is continuity in her style of storytelling, it is the quiet sense of anxiety that pervades everything. Denis indulges us with slow, panning shots, peering through buses and trees or over fences, always making us believe that the threat we feel in the air is lurking just outside her focal length. The camera’s eye isn’t human: we have to wait for Denis to notice things before they come into focus for us. They rarely do, and the experience is excruciating.
White Material takes place on and around a coffee plantation in an unnamed French-speaking West African nation on the eve of revolution. The camera is nearly married to Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the matron of the plantation and the focus of the story. When we first see Maria, she is running frantically across a barren, dust-swept plain. She finds an overcrowded bus on an empty road, climbs aboard a ladder, and clings to the vehicle’s side as it rides towards an unknown destination. This is the tale of a resilient heroine.
Part of the mystifying appeal of White Material is the way Denis allows us to slowly piece together the situation. Maria is estranged from her husband, whose father owns the land. She is a member of the local community, but as the revolution simmers, these social bonds break down. In the first flashback, we watch Maria futilely trying to keep her workers from fleeing the plantation right at the start of the harvest. Despite the constant threat of danger — rebels staging roadblocks, child soldiers in the bushes around the plantation and at her stepson’s school, even a wounded revolutionary leader (called the Boxer) winds up in one of the plantation’s spare rooms where she tends to him — Maria attempts to go about business as usual.
There is something unsettling in the way her entire family conduct themselves amidst the growing turmoil in the countryside. Her father-in-law lounges and bathes; her son sleeps through the afternoon. Their behavior implies a cultural distance. Maria’s husband, Andre (Christopher Lambert), is brash and pragmatic. We sniff an exploitative streak in him as he tries to sell the plantation to the local mayor as a means to gain protection for his family. For Maria, her denial is more psychological than cultural. She has imagined herself part of this world, and now that it is rejecting her, she is working through various stages of denial and identity shock.
To her neighbors, Maria has become “white material,” and when we see her in the overcrowded bus, surrounded by the exhausted black faces of women and children, her white skin, blond hair, and ivory dress make her stand out awkwardly, like a French Rosa Parks. The “white material” of the film’s title also refers to more intimate items, such as Maria’s necklace, which is pinched from her house by two school-age boys brandishing machetes and then discovered later on in the film around the neck of a teenage rebel girl who helps ambush Maria’s truck.
War finally invades the perimeter of the family plantation, but in an unexpected way. Maria’s son Manuel chases the two young necklace thieves out into the bush only to be captured by them. They strip him naked and slice off a clump of his blond hair with a machete. Seemingly traumatized, when Manuel returns to the house, he shaves his head like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, grabs the family shotgun, and heads off on a motorbike to work out his racial and national allegiances as a guerilla. Before he leaves, however, he shoves a fistful of his blond hair in the mouth of a black servant girl. It is an inexplicable moment of abuse, a violent act that hints at some untold, sexually-charged history. It is also a scene that highlights how frustratingly impenetrable this movie is.
With all of Denis’ careful efforts to stretch the tension, she has managed to create something that communicates racial and cultural anxieties without resorting to an explicit polemic. But in doing so, the filmmaker keeps her cards too close to her chest and her characters too muddled and unknowable. And while we wait for the promised relief in the exhale — the release that must come in the form of violence or rescue — we have little to hold onto, little room for ourselves in this tightly crowded psychological puzzle. Perhaps that is Denis’ point: to not let us crack into this foreign world, to not let us feel like the illusion of movie-making is placing us comfortably in a cultural situation that even the story’s players, these displaced westerners, can’t seem to penetrate.
Images courtesy of IFC Films.