Monday, 13 September 2010

White Material (2010)

Synopsis: White French coffee plantation owner defies both the French Army and un-named African rebels to stay on her land as a vicious civil war begins. AKA Apocalypse Maintenant.

Another great film from Claire Denis. Isabelle Huppert (formidable, fantastic Isabelle Huppert) does a sterling job in the lead as Maria Vial, a woman caught up in a civil war that she 'disobeys'. She and her family - father-in-law Michel Subor (Denis regular), ex husband Christophe Lambert (er, Chris, you dropped an 'r' mate), grown up son Nicolas Duvauchelle all play their distinctive roles in fanning the flames of rebel insurection and general chaos.

The film is told in flashback as Maria rides a packed bus back to her plantation. She carries no posessions and is wearing a thin, pink dress - somewhat out of keeping with the dusty, inhospitable conditions. As the scenes unfold, we realise she is at the end of an era. She is warned by the French army to leave (they drop survival kits out of their helicopter as they bark warnings to Maria). In a way, this feels very overdue, but also totally up to date as we see stories in the news of white, post-colonial farmers being chased out of Africa (out of Africa, do you see what I did there? Ha!).

We know Maria and family are therefore living on borrowed time but the air of menace never spills over into melodrama and we never feel pity for her. Isabelle Huppert gives a performance that's almost Bressonian in its simplicity and non-emotiveness. She just acts. One of the reviews that I read said that if this had been a Hollywood film, we would have had scenes of long, tearful speeches given by Huppert about how much she loves Africa etc. etc. Excrutiating, pointless and unrealistic. Here we have a woman who doesn't understand why she should leave or why she should be apologetic about being there in the first place.

We see her interact in various ways with the locals and we see them fleeing the plantation as war moves in. We see her ex making deals with the local mayor to sell the plantation and make as much as he can before getting out himself. We see her hire more workers to take the place of the previous lot. All futile attempts to maintain a status quo and save her coffee crop.

All the while, we're also following the beguiling Isaach De Bankole as the local rebel hero, Le Boxeur, fatally injured and making his way...somewhere unknown. Maria's and his pathes cross and she offers him food, water and medicine (this is the point we realise that apolitical as this film kind of is, we know that Maria naturally sides with rebels).

A couple of moments really stood out as visual references to Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam-athon Apocalpyse Now. That film, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, shows a white man with a shaved head gone mad and gone native in Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz. In White Material, the son, Nicolas Duvauchelle, previously a layabout, good for nothing undergoes a significant tranformation at the hands of two child would-be killers. After his humiliating ordeal he shaves his head, grabs a rifle and heads out to join the rebels, behaving psychotically. For me this was a clear nod to Kurtz.

And, in one of the final scenes of the film, Maria comes across her father-in-law, the plantation owner, as they both discover her son's charred and very dead body. Without hesitation, she clobbers him on his neck, killing him. I was instantly taken to the scene in Apocalypse Now in which we witness a rather violent religious rital take place that ends in the beheading of a sacred cow. Again, the visual similarities mirrored how this story completes a circle, along with Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.

The other thing that really strikes you about this film is the pace. About half way through, when we're with the son, watching his story unfold, I thought to myself 'boy, this film has a lovely rhythm'. As with her other films, they feel slow but without being Iranian or Chinese (if you know what I mean). She takes the correct amount of time to allow a story to unfold, without it feeling padded or over stretched. Absolutely masterful.

I think I need a second viewing of this film and I now feel like re-watching some of her others. One that I haven't seen is her first film, Chocolat, again set in post-colonial Francophone Africa.

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P.S. Perhaps as a tribute to the just dead Claude Chabrol, I should finally get around to seeing Madame Bovary, with Huppert as Emma. A match made in heaven, I reckon.