Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back to Africa, as Denis and Huppert knock our socks off with WHITE MATERIAL


Africa has never been far away from the films of Claire Denis -- from the first and comparatively benign (everything's relative) Chocolat to the new and slowly horrifying WHITE MATERIAL. Even when Denis' setting is Paris and its environs, her characters, some of them, at least, are dealing with the African emigrant experience in France. And her most critically-acclaimed work, Beau Travail (though not my favorite) deals with the French Foreign Legion, whose "home" is the sun-splashed desert of the "dark continent." As special and full of wonder (and two peak performances) as is a film like the Paris-set, bourgeois-bound Friday Night, Denis' work set in Africa commands its own special power, yet none of her films till now have had quite the power of this new one.

White Material is also perhaps as close to mainstream a movie as the filmmaker, pictured at left, has given us. "Close" for Denis, I mean. Relatively easy to follow as it goes from the present to an extended flashback that brings us back to the beginning and slightly onward, the movie is heavy with those mainstream staples -- threat,  violence and terror -- though all of them are handled in a manner that makes us increasingly uneasy, rather than slapping us in the face with standard blood-and-guts. In fact, for a long while we see no killing, no use of violence.  Instead we see its threat -- or its aftermath. When at last, the on-screen, you-are-there killing arrives, it comes from exactly where we do not expect it and is thus even more shocking and unsettling.

It seems to TrustMovies that Denis' theme here is the fruits of Colonialism, harvested on the home ground of the colonized: How self-destructive the big C is to the colonizers themselves and how, once armed revolution takes hold, the colonized become as or more savage than their suddenly overthrown keepers.

The filmmaker's story is about a sick-unto-dying French family who has for three generations owned a coffee plantation in Africa.  The opening shots -- wild dogs running loose and our main character, Maria Vial (played by the great Isabelle Huppert, above) traveling up a road and hoping for help from passing autos that do not stop -- sets the tone for what is to come. Maria wants, no matter what, to hold on to the family plantation.

We meet Huppert's husband André (Christopher Lambert, above), who is trying to negotiate some kind of monetary settlement for the plantation from the powers-that-may-soon-be, including the town's mayor (William Nadylam, below), who has organized his own militia to fight the growing strength of the home-grown rebels jockeying for power. We also meet the household servants, including one with whom André has fathered a son.

Maria's father-in-law (Michel Subor) still controls the plantation but appears to have given up on everything, maybe including life itself. The Vial's grown son (played by Denis irregular Nicolas Duvauchelle, most recently seen in Wild Grass and The Girl on the Train) still acts like a baby half the time, due perhaps to his mom's inappropriate "mothering." When he chases after two young rebels and is made to undergo a terrible humiliation, this sets off familial crises in which the cracks become too big for everyone to bear and all hell break loose inside the family, just as the same thing is occurring outside.
 
Real control eludes nearly everyone here, and even those who seem to possess it for a time (the rebel leader Boxer, played by another magnetic actor Denis used early on: Isaach De Bankolé, shown below) know how transient it will be. In near-complete control, yet seeming loose and intuitive, the filmmaker builds her story and her tension boldly, with always just enough information to keep us up-to-snuff but on our toes, with Huppert's character always in control of herself, if of little else.

This actress just gets better and better. (Really, has she not been, from The Lacemaker onwards, close to perfect?) Huppert rarely change her appearance much (her costumes, of course) yet she has that special ability to seemingly create each character from the inside out.  Consequently we don't doubt a word she says, nor an expression that passes over her often enigmatic face.

White Material (the title refers to the "possessions" of the colonizers) is a decidedly accessible movie, unlike, say Denis' Intruder of a few years back. It tells a gallopingly good story, in addition to being about something important that the world and its people still seem to have trouble comprehending. It should increase this filmmaker's coterie considerably, even as it burnishes her art to a brighter sheen.

The movie, from IFC Filmsopens here in New York City on Friday, November 19, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center. It will also be available from IFC On-Demand starting Wednesday, November 24. Click here to learn how to get it from your local TV-reception provider.

3 comments:

GHJ - said...

It's my #1 of 2010. One of the two masterpieces of the year. (The other being ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND...)
Glad you loved it too.

James van Maanen, said...

Sure did love it! And glad you did, as well. Have you read Mr. Denby this week at The New Yorker? The movie didn't even rate the full review treatment -- only a mini one in the Goings On About Town section. A dissenting voice... (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/events/revivals/2010/11/22/101122gomo_GOAT_movies?currentPage=5)

GHJ - said...

Well, we both know it certainly deserves more than a passing glance. I can't wait to revisit it when it opens in San Diego this December. Talk about a big screen movie!