They don't come along as often as they should, but Claire Denis's "White Material" is exactly the kind of film that not only doesn't belittle the role of a woman, but empowers it. Externalized effortlessly by the great Isabelle Huppert, the two prove to be a force to be reckoned with in this atmospheric film focusing on feminism, colonialism, family, and politics.
Maria Vial is a French farmer, harvesting coffee in an unnamed African country. Though her family relationships are quite large - her son Manuel, her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert in his first respectable role in 20 years), Andre's father, a house keeper, her house keeper's son - it is really her doing all of the work, maintaining the farm and trying to make the year's crop. Making things worse is the outbreak of civil war, with the government attempting to reestablish order and the rebels taking aim at white outsiders under the leadership of The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole). Maria's workers leave out of fright so she takes to the task of hiring a whole new team to help her finish the job, believing to be under the protection of the government and refusing to abandon everything because of a little turnoil. Things complicate when the roaming rebel children tie and torture her dimwitted son, her ex-husband makes a questionable meeting with mayor Cherif regarding the plantation, and Maria gives refuge to the wounded Boxer.
Denis has got a full plate here, but she weaves her intricate tapestry with a skill that only an experienced auteur like her could possibly do. It might also help that her co-writer was the established French playwright Marie N'Diaye, helping her sort and place all of the ideas from the earliest stages of the film. Never once do the various storylines feel undercooked, and each of the many characters are well established, avoiding confusion at all costs. It's definitely a change in game for Denis, who has often told her stories in fragments. This straight-forward approach actually does the story well, as when things start to spin out of control and opposing forces become violent, the turmoil is really felt. It packs a harder punch than her more reflective movies, though unlike them this film feels long at times, particularly towards the middle. Pieces like "The Intruder" or "I Can't Sleep" were an invigorating puzzle from start to finish, filled with metaphors and narrative diversions and all. Without that instant intrigue, Denis could've opted for a swifter edit in post.
Despite all of its plot ambitions and various characters and relationships, the camera's lens is mostly glued to the character of Maria, whether it be in tight shots or wider frames that surround her with the beautiful vegetation of the country. Thankfully she is played by Huppert with the utmost craftsmanship, carving out a densely layered human with a strong presence. Even when she is alone she is captivating, particularly when she is working the field. Denis's camera deftly observes the sweat and stress, coming off almost as a documentary on the farming of coffee beans. It's beautiful, and you can feel her love for the craft, the eye of the camera gazing with such curiosity. The simple direction of Huppert does wonders, as what is a day-to-day routine for her is singled out and becomes much more meaningful, exhibiting her singular strength and impeccable determination.
While the various plot lines don't fall short, the relationships the others have with the protagonist do. Huppert is less interesting with other people, and it may be because she's so commanding on her own, or it's the fact that her relationships with the other characters aren't as complex as she herself is. While her son is unpredictable on his own terms (and when he deals with the torture in his own way, frightening), their relationship doesn't escalate further than a tired mother-disappointed-in-ambitionless-son schtick. Much of the others are the same, quick and simplified to a point where it feels like their inclusion is only to round Maria out as a character, never just existing for themselves. Scenes with the Boxer prove her to be "caring," scenes with her in-law prove her to be "headstrong," etc. It's a shame that these moments feel so contrived, as the character created by Huppert and Denis works so well on her own that these shared scenes really bring their work down.
The one exception is her time with Andre, Lambert's ex-husband character. They're not too cold, but they have a odd sort of chemistry, one that isn't very apparent but actually feels like they had been through years of marriage, divorce, etc. It's the routine-esque nature of their encounters that does it, as even when they are in disagreement or angry with each other they are rather reserved instead of instantly blowing their lid out of pent up frustration. They've already had it out many times in the past, and all it takes is a small interaction to display their years, good and bad, together. It's subtle and borderline brilliant, though they don't get as much time as they should.
Eventually tension mounts, characters betray each other and people wind up dead. The filmmaker cleverly refrains not only from giving a happy ending, but a justification for all acts of violence. Nobody ends up any better than they were, and the various fates concerning the plantation and the country are left dangling. Thankfully it never feels like a morality lesson and Denis doesn't look down on her characters that fought for what they believed in. Instead, the final shot lingers on the lush greenery prevalent in most of the film, suggesting a sort of pity that it all had to end in such a way. It's gorgeous, handled with competence so that it doesn't feel contrived, but legitimately poignant.
Strong, intimate without being too sentimental, plus featuring a strong female character that rarely seen on celluloid, "White Material" isn't flawless -- If Denis had spent as much time concocting strong side characters and relationships as she did devising her hero, it probably could've been -- but it remains as an exceptional piece, one more than worth the time. [B+]