January 13, 2011
Concerned with capturing something rather than commenting too heavily upon the politics and effects of French colonisation in Africa, Claire Denis returns with White Material (2009), another remarkable film that both reveals her exemplary craft and the complexities of psychogeographical conflict. Very much in tune with her previous work (Beau Travail, 1999 and 35 Rhums, 2008 to name but two), White Material is set in an unnamed African country where French occupation is being withdrawn in the face of worsening internal conflict between authorities and rebel soldiers. Taking one white woman’s fight for her plantation as its focal point, White Material shows a multitude of devastation free from accusation and moralising. Far more philosophical in its presentation of colonial consequences, the film presents a series of ethical questions that permeate beyond the confines of the screen world.
As “Survival Guides” are dropped from helicopters with less physical but equal psychological impact upon the people and the landscape, Maria (brilliantly and effortlessly performed by Isabelle Huppert) maintains her resolve and insists that her family stay and fight to harvest their crops. The political situation is beautifully and perfectly mirrored by the volatile landscape, elucidating the idea that the white colonial inhabitants will “grow mediocre coffee that we’d [Indigenous Africans] never drink” and that “It was already too late when you [white French colonialists] built it.”
The titled “white material” is explained twice in the film and, for a land metaphorically castrated the “material” in question, it is understandably displaced (in a distinctly Freudian way) onto an object: a lighter in this instance, described as “just white material”. The second explanation comes via a radio broadcast that re-directs this earlier displacement back onto the people whose culture and objects have impressed, negatively, upon the land, “As for the white material, the party’s over. No more cocktails on shaded verandas while we sweat water and blood.” The contrast here between natural elements such as “water and blood” and constructed materials such as the lighter and then the cocktails and shaded verandas successfully communicates the way in which Indigenous culture is at odds with forced occupation and the seizing of natural resources, namely the now irrevocably altered landscape.
Furthermore, the film brilliantly weaves in an incredible exploration of melancholia (again in a Freudian understanding of the term), whereby the response to the loss of something one never really had ownership of and that hasn’t actually died, but has nonetheless been lost, produces psychosis. This psychosis is explored through the character Manuel (Maria’s son), a boy born in Africa but of French identity; his masculinity and his identity symbolically stripped.
The subtle and respectful ways in which Denis explores such explosive and complicated issues is admirable; her stylistic and narrative choices always carefully crafted with aplomb. A tonally masterful film, White Material‘s communicable affect is at once devastating and poignant. Posing a series of ethical questions yet never so arrogant as to answer them, this is an astounding piece of work that deserves both attention and acclaim.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.