Ten years ago I saw the movie “Beau Travail” directed by Claire Denis. At the time it confused me a little, but I liked it. The film defied normal conventions–not a lot of dialogue, no happy ending, no traditional storyline. But it was beautiful and left an impression on me. Denis has since made other films, but “Beau Travail” was my only exposure to her until now.
“White Material” is considered by many to be one of the top films eligible for a 2010 Oscar in the foreign film category. I viewed it in French with English subtitles. The film, set in an unnamed African country, is the story of a French woman, Maria Vial, portrayed by Isabelle Huppert. Maria is trying to hold things together on the family coffee plantation amidst developing chaos and civil conflict.
The movie opens to events already unfolding: Men with guns discover a body on the plantation. Then we meet Maria as she hops on to a crowded bus. Now she’s riding a motorcycle through the landscape. We’re not quite sure what to think about all of this. The movie then begins to let us know who these characters are. We learn that the Vial family (perhaps a metaphor representing all white French settlers to Africa) is struggling to keep their farm amidst an uprising. Insurgents are sweeping through the land. There are more dead bodies. Soldiers shout to Maria from a helicopter that her family should leave. But Maria either does not believe nor understand the gravity of the situation. Her workers have abandoned the farm. She works to secure more laborers. She also attends to her indifferent and slightly off-kilter son. And like many real life tragedies, things unfold gradually. The suspense builds into the film’s harrowing ending. In more than a couple of ways, the film is about descent into madness.
For the most part, this is a quiet film. We see the simple beauty of every day life on an African farm–the slowness of it, and how Maria has to toil to make the farm work. The camera work is often hand-held and mobile, as if we’re walking and working right along with Maria–discovering her predicament as she does. This is a good example of how cinematography need not be sweeping and dramatic to be good. There is beauty in many of the simple shots composed in the film.
Huppert’s excellent performance carries the film; she plays it perfectly without ostentation. She embodies Maria in real life, a woman of quiet strength working to save her farm. Eventually, her gentle stoicism finally lets go–as the events begin to catch up with her. She starts to realize the seriousness of her situation. But it may be too late.
“White Material” does not take a hard political stance. But it leaves you with questions to answer: Does the Vial family belong here? Are they motivated by greed or love for the land? Do they simply feel this is their home? Are they culpable for the poverty and conflict around them? Are they innocent victims of depraved violence? Is inhumanity inhumane regardless of the motives behind it? Denis, who grew up in French-colonial Africa, deals with things deftly. She simply presents things as they are. Sometimes the way things are is complicated, and not pretty.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
2009, Not Rated, 106 minutes, Drama