The Familiar Destruction of White Material

Alice Gregory | November 24, 2010

Due to the holiday, we are posting this week’s Girl on Film today instead of Thursday. We’ll be back on schedule next week.

Isabelle Huppert in "White Material"

Africa “does” things to people. To white people, that is. It’s a trope with a wicked history. From Josef Conrad to V.S. Naipul to Norman Rush, our fiction is full of characters unhinged by the continent. Narrators become obsessive; they go mad. The landscape often takes on antagonistic, anthropomorphic qualities, and life there appears all but impossible. White women in Africa all end up looking the same, like some variation of Jane Goodall. They dress in white poplin, and they pin their pale hair at the nape of the neck. They don’t wear makeup, but they do always stain their lips a deep red. Tanned arms, ropey hands, weathered face, sturdy walk. Find me an exception.

Isabelle Huppert, who plays Maria Vial, the protagonist of Claire Denis’s newest film, White Material, fits the bill. Maria doesn’t have many lines, but she’s the centrifugal force in every scene. In an anonymous, francophone country, Maria is attempting to preserve the coffee plantation she runs with her ex-husband, Andre. Though civic unrest threatens her family’s safety, she remains dedicated to her ravaged land and unprofitable business. Everyone is trying to get Maria to leave. As the farm’s foreman, Maurice, tells her, “Coffee’s coffee. Not worth fighting for.”

Maria’s survival instinct reins like an unchecked, internal monarchy. Her stubbornness is admirable, but it’s also her fatal flaw – which wouldn’t be quite so tragic if only it didn’t jeopardize others’ lives as well. She’s left the sole spectator to a fiery hell that she could have avoided if not prevented. It’s not as though Maria isn’t warned though. When she finds a bloody chicken head submerged in basket of coffee berries – obviously a threat from the rebels – she buries it immediately, telling no one. But Andre catches her red-handed (the earth here, like the bird blood, is russet-colored). He digs up the chicken head, thrusting it in her face. “You know what this means? We’ll all die.”

We’re continuously faced with Maria’s focused laser-like stare. She’s efficient and doggedly determined. She walks as fast as she can without running. She’s always attending to something urgent, dire, and physically uncomfortable: traveling into town to replace the plantation pickers who have fled; transporting heavy baskets of coffee beans; driving though a gate that needs to be unlocked and then relocked back up again once she’s on the other side. She lives a life of semi-voluntarily toil and incessant hassle. You’re exhausted for her, and Denis keeps the camera close enough to her at all times that you don’t think to question Maria’s larger motives; instead, you feel her every burden. It’s all too easy to remain devoted to an impossible life when its difficulties are acute and constant enough that they defer more major problem solving.

Throughout the film, Maria argues with her “inert” teenage son, Manuel. Tattooed and lethargic, he sleeps all day and seems tortured by his mother’s commitment to an increasingly obsolete way of life. Finally, Maurice cracks. He takes a rifle into the bathroom, shaves off his flaxen mane (“Extreme blondeness begs to be pillaged,” says a rebel earlier.) and storms into the living room, pinning down his stepmother and cramming her mouth with his own hair. He looks like a Neo-Nazi, an image which is made all the more awful by its juxtaposition with the rural setting. Maurice recruits rebels, and they band together, destroying everything in their path. The terror culminates in scenes of child soldiers gorging themselves on imported junk food and prescription pills. They pass out in tepid baths, only to be shot in their sleep.

Denis handles bathetic imagery well. Her arsenal of unsettling set pieces is extensive and affecting: a static radio; an open jelly jar; a lone, ribby horse tied to a tropical hardwood. They stand out as purposeful signifiers of decivilization and domestic wreckage, but somehow their prominence doesn’t seem manipulative or cheap. An unclaimed rubber sandal spotted in a remote forest could easily be a calculating shot. So could an empty house, decorated with tribal masks and gas tanks. A lesser filmmaker might coerce you into feeling more intensely, but they would also make you to identify your reactions individually, piecemeal.

Denis’s directorial tactic is more cumulative; the horror she evokes is constant and literally breathtaking. Even banal, plot-advancing events clobber. The purpose of helicopter landings in film, for instance, is usually transitional. It’s meant to get characters in or out of a scene. But here we’re obliged to witness exactly what a helicopter does to the ground as it touches down. Undergrowth is torn to shreds. Terrible dust clouds form. The noise is deafening. That’s what really happens when a helicopter lands, and you wonder why you’ve never been asked to see it before.

Keeping a mental dossier of the rebels, workers, and soldiers is little difficult – the light is low and the men are all armed. But the mechanics of turmoil aren’t so important here. White Material is a thematic film, not a plot-driven one.  And like in so many a classic myth, degeneration scales. Anarchy is calibrated; personhood, family, business, nation – all deteriorate at once. A good mother gone feral… Machine guns strapped to murderous school children… Africa is good for casting atrocity in a primordial light, good at forcing us to confront our most primeval nightmares.