Claire Denis, working behind the camera, and Isabelle Huppert, in front of it, are two of the most superb artists in French cinema, and they combine their gifts splendidly in “White Material.”
Grace, depth and exquisite enigma distinguish this Africa-set sizzler.
Denis is a mood maestro who avoids plotted narratives and instead immerses viewers in her characters’ routines and predicaments. She uses poetic imagery to reveal truths and builds suspense by giving scenarios an unsettling haziness.
With “White Material,” Denis returns to the West Africa setting of her debut film, “Chocolat.” The period is now post-colonial and hope has disintegrated into violence and chaos.
It begins with a blaze and a corpse, then flashes to another point in time and will soon deliver a picture of a country ravaged by civil war.
Huppert plays Maria, a Frenchwoman who runs a coffee plantation.
It is obvious, to all but Maria, that she is no longer welcome. The departing French army is issuing go-home warnings from helicopters. Child soldiers are prowling and looking for a rebel called the Boxer (Isaach De Bankole). A DJ condemns “white material.” Maria’s own workers are bolting.
Alone in her intimate world as well — her ex-husband (Christophe Lambert) is cutting deals behind her back, while her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) sleeps all day and eventually snaps into his own form of madness — Maria insists on staying on the plantation until after the harvest.
While Denis does not make crisp the reasons for Maria’s stubbornness, it is clear that Maria is attached to her land and that it gives her a sense of purpose. As her defiance increases, dangerous delusion takes hold.
The film, which Denis wrote with Marie NDiaye, is not as accessible as last year’s “35 Shots of Rum,” Denis' poignant father-daughter story. Emotionally, it does not hit deep enough to achieve knockout status.
But it triumphs as an impressive mood piece and social drama, and contains moments of genuine horror and beauty.
As animosities intensify, Denis creates tension and conveys tragedy. Her penchant for close-ups, in this case of the child soldiers, yields haunting images of the war mentality.
Denis, who grew up in colonial Africa as the daughter of a French civil servant, has made an intelligent, astute portrait of Africa today, depicting colonialism’s reverberations without preachiness or a simplistic slate of villains and good guys.
As for Huppert, she brings a fearlessness and a riveting complexity to the obliquely written Maria and gives the film a vital pulse beneath the mysteries.
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Bankole
Written by Claire Denis, Marie NDiaye
Directed by Claire Denis
Not rated Running time 1 hour 42 minutes