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January 28, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

White Material (film)


Published 21/1/11 by www.artshub.com.au

Watching White Material is like watching some kind of hypnotically beautiful car crash in motion. Director Claire Denis is an expert at magnifying the final impact of the scene she has set, amplifying the grating crush of metal on metal, psyche against psyche, until at last the audience is standing staring at the catastrophe that has occurred and wondering how no one in the car could have seen it coming.

This ignorance of the future, and indeed of the present itself, is highly evident in the film’s central character, Marie (played by Isabelle Huppert). Set in an unnamed African country facing political upheaval through social rebellion and violence, Marie is the matriarch of a coffee plantation and she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that the path of destruction will follow her straight to her doorstep. This is even after the French military fly to her house and, with the aid of a loudspeaker, tell her as they hover in mid-air that the area is too dangerous for even them to stay. While Marie’s husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) desperately pleads with his wife to leave for the sake of their teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Marie doggedly pursues her aim of processing the coffee crop and saving her farm from extinction.

This a quietly haunting movie, where the drama is carefully underplayed in favour of underlying tension. For the most part, even this is kept hidden under the subtle constraints of a stubborn character in self-denial and a country that is splitting at the seams. In many respects, it is as much a film about death as it is life. While the audience awaits the inevitable (succinctly highlighted in the opening scenes), we watch Marie cling to the self-deception that has sustained her as the political crisis in her country gains momentum. Manuel is most easily influenced by the changes taking place outside his own home. Initially naive, indolent and stupid, an unexpected moment of violence changes him; from then on his fractured relationship with his parents begins to stretch beyond the common bounds of family ties.

Huppert, Lambert and Duvauchelle all exhibit restraint onscreen, allowing the tattered remains of their links to each other speak most powerfully about how their personalities have become frayed by the threat of violence. Each clings to their idea of morality in strikingly different ways; for Marie it is dedication, for Andre it is the use of reason, and for Manuel it is rebellion. But in the end, morality matters little when the minority is the ‘white material’ the African majority is seeking to eradicate. White Material, is a carefully engineered and beautifully tonal film that leaves you with the impression that you weren’t an observer of a car-crash scene; rather, you were as much a part of the scene as the vehicle’s passengers.

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