White Material

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am

White Material
Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole
Director: Claire Denis

On the surface, White Material seems like a return to familiar territory for both Claire Denis and Isabelle Huppert. A story about a white coffee plantation owner's travails in francophone Africa, the film is a return to post-colonial discontent which Denis touched on in her 1988 debut Chocolat.

Playing a colonialist obsessed with defending her possessions in increasingly hostile terrain, Huppert seems to be retreading her turn in Rithy Panh's adaptation of Marguerite Duras' The Sea Wall, in which she played a woman trying desperately to save her flooded rice fields in French-occupied Cambodia in the 1930s.

But White Material is a much edgier exercise than both Chocolat and The Sea Wall. An avid reader of Frantz Fanon - who wrote of the mental degradation colonialism brings about - Denis has delivered a damning look at how colonialism eats at the coloniser and the colonised. Set in an unidentified African country, White Material revolves around Maria Vial (Huppert), a coffee farmer trying to salvage her harvest as circumstances around her deteriorate. With the country in chaos - rebels are on the loose, their ranks full of drugged-up child soldiers - her workers are deserting. Maria also faces dissent from her ex-husband Andre (Christophe Lambert), who wants out immediately, and her slacker son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle).

Soon both the rebels and the military are at her door, as the fatally injured rebel leader, the Boxer (Isaach de Bankole), holes up in Maria's premises.

The film's obvious source of tension comes from the warring factions. What's more horrifying, however, is the demeanour of the whites. Maria's single-minded determination to protect her own interests, for example, hardly places her as a straightforward protagonist and Andre's fretting is less than heroic. But it's through Manuel that Denis lays bare the post-colonial psyche of those 'white material' who remained after the end of minority rule. Troubled by a near-deadly exchange with some rebels, the young man shaves his hair, takes his father's rifle and assaults his black servants before going on a rampage alongside the rebels. It reflects a mental state of being in-between, of not belonging to any social collective; it is another vivid chapter in Denis' portrayals of dislocated characters.

Extras: interviews with Denis and Lambert; trailer.