WHITE MATERIAL

2009; directed by Claire Denis; written by Lucie Borleteau, Claire Denis and Marie N’Diaye; 106 mins

Jesus! I’ve just noticed… it’s ten minutes since the film finished and my heart rate is still up! I should quickly state that this is no pulse-pounding thriller, rather an intense drama depicting the last vestiges of colonialism in Africa and the fallout of an empire coming full circle to ruin it’s own descendants.

Set in an unnamed, French-speaking African country, we meet Maria, a failing coffee plantation owner, stuck on a small bus, reflecting over the last week as her life has fallen apart around her. Civil war is tearing the country apart and a squad of child soldiers have been stalking the local area, looking for a well-known and liked fugitive figure called The Boxer. Maria’s workers are fleeing and her ex-husband, Andre, is desperately urging her to leave whilst making his own plans to sell the plantation. For whatever manifold reasons, Maria simply will not heed anyone’s pleas for her to get out. Not army, not family, not anyone!

This is a film that deals with the after effects of Europe’s colonialist past through the eyes of a white European (“White Material”, apparently, is the term various peoples of Africa use to describe white people and their possessions as essentially the same). However, this is no piss-weak apology-seeking tract. Maria is shown to bloody-minded to a fault and then some! She cannot see the wood for the trees and is forever obsessing about getting the coffee crop in before the week’s out, neglecting the danger for those around her, not least of which is her mentally unstable son, Manuel. Constantly, people are imploring her to leave. A long-serving bodyguard tells her he’s too old to go anywhere, when she echoes his sentiments, he responds; “No. For you, it’s not the same. Not at all.” She off-handedly responds; “Maybe you’re right.” With that, the film gives you the sense that she thinks of herself as part of the land but she has never understood that for the indigenous people, she never was and never will be.

I came to this one having only seen Claire Denis‘ 2008 feature, 35 Shots of Rum, a few years ago and been eager to see more. Her films seem to run that fine line between artistry and brutal reality. She doesn’t appear to deal in cheap metaphor but uses images to set tone that will compliment the stories she chooses to tell. Aiding this, is the harsh beauty of Yves Cape‘s cinematography, dotted with lush African vistas but mostly looking down at the soil and through the dust flung up by noisome vehicles. No wistful melancholy is allowed to get in the way of the chillingly casual fashion in which guns are thrust into people’s faces or children become the perpetrators of brutality rather than the victims. Denis and Marie N’Diaye‘s story shows us a broken land but one in which it’s breakers are long gone and their successors are stuck in an endgame they still seem to think has easy answers.

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