Monday, 19 July 2010

white material (d. claire denis, w denis & marie n'diaye)

Denis and Huppert. A potentially explosive combination. Which, in this case, smoulders rather than combusts. Like the coffee factory which the troops burn, where Huppert's son dies, where she enacts an Apocalyptian Now moment at the end, felling a strangely Brando-esque lookalike (the underused Michel Subor). It appear that Denis deliberately keeps the lid on this somewhat Conradian tale of the redoubtable coffee plantation owner who believes she belongs to Africa, only to discover that Africa isn't convinced about the relationship.

Huppert is utterly convincing as the bedraggled, faintly elegant neo-colonialist, Maria Val. Because of course, this unnamed country is no longer a colony. It's now a failed state, with echoes of the Congo, or Rwanda. A place where children are the lords of misrule, as they were in another French film, Sauvaire's Johny Mad Dog. However, Denis brings her distinctive vision to bear. When two child soldiers infiltrate Maria's house, they leave dirty footprints in the bath. They nearly kill her son, but no-one seems to think much of it. In Maria's world view, these things are always on the brink of happening, and that's part of the reason she loves it. Her occasional references to France reveal something bordering on contempt for the privileged Europeans. At one moment she mutters in a rare voiceover her opinion that this country is too beautiful for Europeans, as though she believes herself completely assimilated, an African native. In spite of the fact that the leader of the rebels criticises the exploitative foreigners, which include her. Another artful scene shows her showing her hired hands their living quarters. The coffee pickers peer into a darkened shed, full of bunks. Their world remains divorced from the white people's living quarters, no matter how much Maria thinks they're all the same.

Maria's characterisation is rich and strange, part heroic, part idiocy, part condescending, part integrated. Denis seems inclined to let Huppert's acting do the work, using less music than usual, having her roving camera follow her like a spy. Although the film yet again posits an Africa which exists on the edge of anarchy, ruled by boys in dresses and mystic warlords, it draws strength from the complexity of its portrayal of the coffee grower, who doesn't even own the plantation she works on, which is now worthless. Her quixotic faith in the value of the land makes this is a film about belonging and our understanding of what that means. The way in which it is choice as much as a birthright. If White Material initially seems like an unlikely film for Denis, after 35 Rhums, perhaps it might be seen as its obverse. Where the latter dealt with African immigrants in Europe, this one deals with European immigrants in Africa. All of them seeking their identity in a mixed up muddled up shook up world.

No comments: