In an unnamed African nation, child soldiers wield guns and machetes, swallow fistfuls of pills and hunt for a rebel leader called “The Boxer”. A coffee plantation is falling apart with no one to bring in the harvest. Workers are threatened by government soldiers, marauding bands of thugs, and their own liberation movement. In White Material, a woman tries to save the only thing she’s ever known which, as much as she wants to believe otherwise, has always held more bondage and personal strife for her than happiness.
Maria (Isabelle Huppert) oversees the aforementioned plantation. Even before recent events, it’s seen better days. Owned by her ex-husband who is cutting his own deals with a corrupt mayor and with her ill father-in-law living in the manor house, she ignores pleas from French soldiers to leave for her own safety and bullies and barters her way through each obstacle to pull in a last harvest that probably won’t save the estate anyway. Her grown son has become unmoored from his family, the rebel leader is mortally wounded and hiding on the plantation yet Maria remains fixated on her own rescue mission. Hers is a ferocious love of this place, so much so that she’s deluded herself into thinking she can force rationality onto this situation–or at least with enough stalling, everything will float by or fall back into its appointed place. Towards the end of the film she says, “I couldn’t get used to anywhere else,” but then her world view is corrected by a character who’s playing all ends against the middle, “for you it’s not the same thing… you don’t want anyone taking what you have.” At this point the viewer wonders if anything Maria ever had was hers to begin with.
A visual director whose work is always striking and enigmatic, you could argue Denis’ films are too abstract. That they’re pretentious and thin, with with no true writerly craft apparent, the spare dialogue pointing up a laziness of plotting.
The counter argument is that she respects the story and her audience’s intelligence. No clumsy exposition or characters explaining motivation. Why is her son the way he is? “He was born here, but the country doesn’t like him.” A single line of dialogue, and if you’ve paid attention, insight is offered about so many things that have transpired.
Maria never seems frightened for herself, only that her home may not exist anymore. She’s a thing that’s been broken many times, knit again and thus stronger at the seams, but what’s stretched between is brittle and starched. We see her resilience under a dusty, sun faded veil of post-colonialism. She’s loves this terrible, beautiful place. She’s not the same as the “dirty whites”. She’s earned the right to be here. Her devotion will stand this test. Or so she keeps telling herself.
Denis hasn’t given us a romance on the moonlit veldt, this is trying to out dance a dust devil. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 4/12/11