In a Claire Denis film, skin is always a character. Whether it be the leathery, rugged skin of Michel Subor's aged body in "The Intruder," which Denis examines in leisurely takes, or the way that skin serves as a kind of titillation in the vampiric horror film "Trouble Every Day," the beauty found in a Denis frame is natural and imperfect, and skin becomes a medium to express this. It's the blemishes on Tricia Vessey's body in ‘Trouble,’ and the moles and warts on Subor's back, that give Denis' images texture. She would have no interest in the "clean and clear and under control" skin some advertisements promise.
But there's a greater reason why skin is so emphasized, and it has to do with race. As a French woman born in Paris but raised in colonial Africa, Denis is fascinated (and saddened) by the friction between whites and blacks, which she's considered throughout her career. You can track this theme from her autobiographical debut, 1988's "Chocolat" to 1994's "I Can't Sleep," a subdued procedural which examines the hardships of the immigrant experience in Paris, to 2000's "Beau Travail," a re-imagining of Melville's "Billy Budd," which maps out a battle of white egos against the harsh terrain of Djibouti, to this year's "White Material," something of a career summation and a return to Africa, though this time the location is unnamed.
"White Material" is Denis coming full circle, her more narrative-driven early work (especially "Chocolat," its closest cousin within her filmography) clashing with the abstract rhythms and impressionistic imagery of her more recent films, such as the inscrutable "Intruder." If 2009's "35 Shots of Rum," a moody, meditative family drama and contender for the best film of last year, found this great artist settling into her old age (she's now 62) and embracing her love of Yasujiro Ozu (it is, after all, something of a remake of Ozu's "Late Spring"), "White Material" shows she still has some fight left in her, enough to confound and enthrall in equal measure.
Though born in France, Claire Denis spent much of her childhood in Africa; her father was stationed there as a French Official, and she's said in interviews that her family moved often so they could come to understand the "geography" of their region. Denis's debut, “Chocolat,” uses these experiences; it's the only film Denis herself considers autobiographical. It traces the early life of an adolescent girl, very significantly named France, whose upbringing bears similarity to Denis' own. A framing device sandwiches the film between two present-day sequences: a prologue and stellar epilogue involving France as an adult visiting Cameroon after years away. In between, we're thrust into Northern French Cameroon, where seven-year-old France lives with her parents and "houseboy" Protee (Isaach De Bankolé). Denis focuses on the relationship between Protee and France's mother (Giulia Boschi), as seen through the young girl's eyes—a relationship complicated by racial and class tensions. France herself observes, but not passively: she learns. Most significant is the knowledge her father imparts to her, describing the horizon as a line that is "there and not there" (a metaphor for the line which separates race and class). Many have praised Denis' latest, "White Material," but its shared themes are explored with a greater depth and clarity here. [B+]