Monday, January 17, 2011


Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankolé, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle
Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 105 min.
Language: French
Country: France
Verdict: A truly autobiographical film, where the movie is its protagonist.
Genre: Drama

        Self righteousness is its own reward. And its own punishment. You get to stand away from the cross section. The general masses. And you end up standing alone too. It is probably the best and the worst places to be in, as a person, constantly proving once mental and emotional strength, while constantly feeling the need to prove. It is a feeling of being both superior and inferior at the same time, a constant reassurance of one’s might pushing that niggling feeling of insecurity somewhere into a dark corner. But it always is there. It is a circle, I guess. I have read quite a number of criticisms against White Material’s deliberately disjointed structure, most notably from David Denby of The New Yorker (one of the best critics out on print), and I wish he had written and explained more than a little meaningless, and in my opinion superficial, blurb. He questions the discontinuity. I ask – how else could it be? Where does one start with self righteousness?
        White Material, my first film of Ms. Denis (a filmmaker born in France and raised in Colonial Africa), is remarkably autobiographical in its very soul, and that is what addresses its structure. It opens, more or less, to the slender figure of a woman running through a dusty patch of land, covered here and there by dry bushes. The wind is flowing, and this slender woman (Ms. Huppert) is walking and running trying to get out of this middle of nowhere. She waves down a car, that doesn’t stop. She is wearing a dress, and I don’t know, but the sight of a woman wearing a dress in a tough terrain makes me feel uncomfortable for her. A pair of denims is fine, probably safe. One might remember how Ms. Angelina Jolie running from her office in a skirt gets to her neighbor and changes into a pair of trousers. Feels safe, and makes us at ease. It is remarkable how Ms. Denis pins her slender body to this tough terrain. And since it is Ms. Huppert, a woman who isn’t merely stoic but so aggressively intimidating and headstrong, with her head always slightly pushed back and her eyes so strangely calm, that it immediately cuts the picture. She manages to find a bus, packed full. Instead of riding the roof with a lot of men she decides to hang on to the back of the bus. The bus rides on bumpy little track, her dress is still fluttering, and she is hanging onto the ladder. You fear if she would fall down. She probably doesn’t. Or probably, she does, but that act of proving her toughness against the grind this moment is putting her through means much more to her. She is not Angelina Jolie, a masculine fantasy draped in a female attire, but Isabelle Huppert, dear reader, probably our finest living actress, and the very height of self righteous resolve. And through this remarkable image, at once specific and symbolic as Ms. Manohla Dargis mentions in her remarkable review here, Ms. Denis captures, and probably creates one of the striking cinematic moments from the year gone by.
        But our question remains. Where does one start with self righteousness? Continuity is not the answer. Neither is it the question. In fact, it is not even the word. Realization probably. Gradual and constant realization of one’s actions. Conscience? I guess conscience is a by-product of realization. The woman, Maria Vial, is a coffee plantation owner, or something to that effect, since her father-in-law (again, something to that effect) was the owner before falling sick and rendered largely immobile. Her husband Andre (Mr. Lambert) doesn’t look much about the plantation, and it is Maria who is taking care of the coffee production. All of it. She is managing everything, right from the labor force to the procurement, to probably the selling as well. The place we’re in is an unknown country in Africa, and since it is unknown, it has all the features you look in a typical African country. Poverty, check. Nincompoops, check. Rebels, check. Children with guns, check. I don’t cite these checks as a deficiency, but as a characteristic of the self-righteous white. We all saw the arrogant Avatar, with its arrogant hero Jake. White Material, by way of implicating itself, ends up as a criticism of that delusional arrogance. That white material here is represented in all its glory by Maria, who, despite repeated requests from the French army, who, despite watching several natives flee, is staying at her plantation. To produce coffee. To make an example. She wants to hold on this land, and let neither her ex-husband, or her deranged son, or anybody else leave this place. Just as she held onto that ladder on the bus on the bumpy ride. Only that the bus-toughness is later in time than the civil-war-toughness.
        You see, time matters. A mistake we learn from because it’s probably a by-product of ignorance. Arrogance, or ego, is a different ballgame, considering most times we already are aware of the probable consequences. Ms. Huppert has no peer, not now, not ever, when it comes to showing resolution even if personal destruction and loss is staring in her face, or causing a volcano inside of her. And Ms. Denis, in her part, frame after frame after frame, pins the slender figure of this woman against everything this place has to offer, causing developments that basically prove the meaninglessness of her resolve, and to plain break her. The camera follows her during her standoff, a goat head in the coffee beans, a bandit gun pointing to her head, managing a bunch of male laborers. A part of Maria is probably relishing this opportunity. Even where local populating is running away, she is the one literally standing her ground. Everything about this place, the tangible and the intangible, is her element. Outside of this there is nowhere she can prove her worth. Ms. Denis, herself being a white material, is involving in a very specific instance of this very basic of emotion found in all of us, an element we all need.
        I was explaining the structure, and the emotional sense it makes. We meet Maria on that bus. She is terrified, and on her face is a strange sense of surrender and weakness, desperately trying to get concealed by the anger and arrogance of defeat. Ms. Denis studies her face, and not since Ma mère have I seen such a defeated Ms. Huppert. I seem to be using White Material and Maria and Isabelle Huppert interchangeably, and it makes sense of me. I have always found her mysterious. Maria is looking out of the bus window, realization probably dawning on her. Ms. Denis cuts to the past. We meet Maria riding high and free on a bike. I was reminded of the opening of Lawrence of Arabia, another figure who found his element in a land of others, and I wonder if Ms. Denis was thinking the same.
        And then we meet others. Her ex-husband. Her workers. Her son. The patriarchal owner of the land. Local women. Men. Rebels. The Boxer. Her step-son, or someone to that effect. Her sandals. Her purse. A radio and its announcer. But all of them strictly backdrop material, parts of the terrain so to speak. There’s a civil war out there between the militia and the rebels, and yet we’re not entirely clear on what’s what and where and how. We don’t know these parts, other than basic information. They all possess certain characteristics, but then we’re always looking at them from a distance. Variables might be a word we’re looking for. We feel like an outsider, and Maria probably feels the same. She doesn’t know the local politics, or probably doesn’t feel it. She doesn’t belong here; she cannot feel the pulse of this place. And yet, through her stubborn resolve she is standing on this land. Her land. It is a structure that makes sense.
        I would leave you to discover the tragedy. The film opens to a striking image, a wall-piece lit by a flashlight. We see fire. We see a man choking. The film would come full circle. There’s the strong white, there’s the weak white, and there’s the timid white. But then, things are not so clear cut, and stereotypical. There’s a white who becomes a black. Or something to that effect. I was reminded of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a messy little world that Ms. Denis throws at Maria. Or probably, Maria came seeking for it.

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