November 16, 2010
White Material opens with a shot of dogs crossing a headlight-lit road, followed by flashlights illuminating the well-appointed interior of an abandoned bourgeois home. The sequence ends with the image of an African revolutionary leader named The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole) lying dead, his face etched out in circles of light. It is a film about coming out of the darkness into this rather cursed light – what is revealed is dissolution and chaos. Claire Denis’ allusive and texturally beautiful film opens this Friday from IFC Films, and will appear on video-on-demand services starting November 24th. I participated in a round table interview with Denis and star Isabelle Huppert last week in NYC, and their insights will be liberally sprinkled in with my own below.
Huppert stars as Maria Vial, the sinewy-strong manager of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African nation (it was shot in Cameroon). A seductive voice crackles over the radio about armed unrest and the iron hand with which the government plans to put it down. Maria’s workers start fleeing en masse, and soon her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) urges her departure as well. Her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), the owner of the plantation, is a ghost-like presence, sickly and waiting for death (the fate of a white man’s burden), while her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shows signs of mental breakdown. Everything is falling apart, and yet Maria is obsessively intent on completing the year’s harvest. She exists in a state of willful ignorance, unable to accept the destruction of the only home she’s known.
Huppert and Denis emphasize the split nature of Maria’s personality. Together with DP Yves Cane (long time collaborator Agnes Godard was tending to her sick mother at the time), Denis frames Maria up close with a handheld camera, emphasizing her isolation. And yet within these spare framings, Huppert exudes an indomitable, intractable kind of fortitude. Her denial of reality doesn’t unmoor her from it, but makes her dig deeper inside of it. From the outside, the perspective of the French soldiers in helicopters urging her to leave, she is fragile and soon to be victimized. But in the cocoon of close framing she is a warrior, her pink cotton dress, as Denis described it, a kind of armor. Denis again: “I remember a scene from the coffee plantation. There was this young man, young worker in the plantation, took his moto, raised his arms and said, ‘every morning when I go on my motorcycle I feel free and strong’. I really liked that. She [Maria] was seen by the French soldier as a little fragile victim they came to rescue. A minute after riding the motorbike she starts feeling, ‘I will make it, I will manage to finish the harvest. I will not be a victim’.”
Huppert: “As Claire was writing the script with Marie [author and first time screenwriter Marie N’Diaye], I remember she was giving me clues, she was something like a bionic woman, a super woman. By this exaggeration she gave me a clue of what she wanted. Not psychological, but a physical approach to the character. I remember when she said that to me. It really opened a whole world. A totally physical approach, and nothing else. So I started to learn how to ride a motorcycle, and when I got to Cameroon I started to learn how to ride the tractor. So the character was defined by resistance to the natural elements, and the whole situation against her.”
As self-destructive as her behavior is, Maria is still imbued with a kind of faded grandeur. She is fully committed to the colonial project even to the point of death. She identifies completely with the land, raking in the coffee cherries with the workers and focused only on keeping the farm open. It is a phenomenonally physical performance by Huppert, even standing still she seems like a natural part of the landscape, a stylish scarecrow.
Her principles are paternalistic and outmoded, but at least she has them. The violence that threatens the edge of every frame seems to have no principles except destruction. The rebels are terribly young, child soldiers drafted into a war they didn’t choose. The government is run by cynical profiteers, organizing militias for their own protection but caring little that the rest of the country will burn. In the midst of this chaos, Maria is a stabilizing presence. She is insane, but steady. This steadiness of belief is why Denis continually compares her visually to The Boxer, the mythical rebel leader, and the only other character who seems to believe in his own cause. The Boxer is also given intimate single close-ups like Maria, while the rest of the film uses medium to long shots set on a tripod.
His story is also one of dissolution. He is wounded, his life slowly draining out of him while the rebellion he once led spirals out of control. Like Marie with her family, the rebel forces are no longer under his command. And yet he remains impossibly serene, his face an imperturbable mask. Their destinies are intertwined through these visual, thematic and structural rhymes. Structural, because the opening shot of his death immediately precedes the introduction of Maria, riding a bus to nowhere, before it moves back in time to establish what led her to get that empty look on her face (She meets The Boxer briefly in this middle section). This flashback structure establishes the entropic direction of the narrative – we know things will fall apart, but not how. White Material was shot before 35 Shots of Rum, but was released a year later, not just due to the vagaries of distribution, but also because she spent so much time establishing the structure. In the interview she said the script was written in chronological order, but that the bus scene got stuck in her mind, because she wanted, “To have Maria appear in the broad daylight, already lost, already too late.” The opening shot of the Boxer was necessary because she wanted, “Dark night preparing her to walk into daylight. I cannot explain why.”