Isabelle Huppert, small and slender, embodies the power of a warrior. In many films, he is a persistent force, but you can’t see how he does it. He rarely acts broadly. Violence lives within. Sometimes he is mysteriously expressionless; we see what he is determined to do, but he sends no signal with his voice or eyes to explain it. There is a lack of concern about our opinion; he will, no matter what we think the reason is.
In Claire Denis’ “White Material,” she played Maria Vial, a French woman who runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. The land has fallen into war, both against the invaders and among the rebels. In the opening scene, a helicopter hovers over Maria and French soldiers advise her to evacuate immediately. This he had no intention of doing. When it became clear that his life was in danger, he only grew more opaque. Huppert’s approach is valuable here, because any attempt at rational explanation would seem illogical. I believe his attachment to the ground basically drives him crazy.
It’s not even the farm. It is owned by her former father-in-law and run by her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert). Now he is in day-to-day responsibilities and moves with confidence. The way she dresses makes a statement: She loves simple sandals and sheer patterned evening gowns that make her look more at home than durable clothes. He doesn’t even like hats or sunglasses. He ran through the fields like a child. He drives trucks, runs errands, goes to town to hire replacement workers when his workers leave for fear of war. There is a scene where he tries to physically restrain the departing workers.
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They tried to be reasonable with him. Yes, it would be a good harvest of coffee beans, but there would probably be no way to market them. Anarchy has taken over the land. Child soldiers with rifles lined up around, makeshift soldiers streak across their shirts, looking for “The Boxer” (Isakh De Bankole), a former bounty fighter and now the legendary, if barely visible, leader of the rebellion. When Maria was held at gunpoint, she boldly told the armed young men that she knew them and their families. The danger didn’t seem real to him. There is no overt black-and-white racial tension in this film; the characters all behave as the situation would suggest.
Claire Denis, a French principal director, was born and raised in French Colonial Africa, and is drawn to Africa as a subject; his first film, the great “Chocolat” (1988), was shot there, and also starred the formidable Isaach De Bankole. Both that and the film are based on The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing’s first novel, the idea of a woman more capable than her husband on an African farm. Denis 2009 film “35 Shots of Rum” deals with Africans in France. He is not sentimentalizing Africa or trying to make a political statement. He knows it well and hopes to show it as he knows it. Huppert’s inactivity might suit him; the character never expresses abstract ideas about agriculture or Africa, and the closest he comes to explaining why he doesn’t go is asking, “How can I show courage in France?” No one asked what that meant.
We meet her ex-husband and father, but the other main character in the film is his son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). This boy, in his late teens, seems ready to spend his whole life in his room. While his mother ran the farm, he projected laziness and complete indifference. He didn’t care about her, the farm or anything.
Events caused him to undergo a terrifying transformation, but it wasn’t what we expected. He does not move in the direction of conventional narratives, but laterally, driven by inner turmoil.
This is a beautiful and confusing film. The enigmatic quality of Huppert’s play caught our eye. He would never leave, and we thought he might die, but he didn’t seem aware of the risks. There is an early scene where she runs in her sheer dress to catch the bus and finds there are no seats. So he reached for the stairs leading to the roof. Buses are like Africa. It was full of Africans, we’re not sure where it went, and he stayed.
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