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.”


October 13, 2009


The coverage of this year’s New York Film Festival was weirdly tendentious, culminating in A.O. Scott’s bizarre NY Times dispatch in which he claims (I paraphrase), that there is a cabal of scheming festival programmers who hate humanity and eagerly promote films which espouse a “principle of innate depravity.” I’m (slightly) exaggerating his argument, but he adopts a strikingly strident tone for a diverse slate of movies, grandly sweeping complex works of art into his “festival” category so he can haughtily ignore them. What he yearns for, it seems, are films of “high-minded middlebrowism.” Don’t we have the next two months of Oscar-bait to satisfy that particular need? I’d much rather have a rare screening from an experimental young Filipino filmmaker like Raya Martin than the latest Sam Mendes chin-scratcher that will be released nationwide the following week.

Two of the films he dismisses under the “innate depravity” tag are Bong Joon-ho’s hugely entertaining Mother and Claire Denis’ mesmerizing White Material. I love innate depravity! Mother is a unique blend of police procedural and melodrama of suffocating motherly love. Opening on a shot of the galvanic lead, Kim Hye-ja (famous in Korea for her portrayal of maternal roles), sinuously dancing in a glade of flowing high grass, Bong is announcing the film’s playfully enigmatic tone. The shot is an amusing non-sequitur until the plot reveals its seedy secrets.

Kim is the unnamed mother of Do-jun (Weon Bin), a soft-spoken simpleton who can barely string a sentence together. Their relationship is combative and creepy. Mother stalks his every move, inching up to him as he pisses against a wall, lifting a bowl of “medicine” to his lips. As the urine pools on the sidewalk, she tries to cover it up with a street side hunk of trash. This kind of suffocating attention is twisted inside out when Do-jun is accused of murder. Artlessly bulldozing her way through the crime scene and the victim’s friends, she styles herself a one-woman truth commission. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator, riveted on clues that lead to digressive dead ends and a motley crew of supporting characters. Do-jun’s erstwhile “friend” Jin Tae (Jin Gu) is the most fascinating of these ghouls, a self-styled Dirty Harry who milks the mother for money while doggedly, and quite violently, pursuing the lurid clues in the case.

Bong moves among these different plot strands with startling precision, steadily layering motifs (of pooling liquids that build in malevolence, from the aforementioned urine up to the blood on a dirt floor) until they effortlessly evoke the complicated moods of its compromised protagonists. The way he levers the mother’s acupuncture kit into a moment of tragedy is a master class in scripting and composition. It’s the most devilishly enjoyable film I’ve seen in quite a while. Luckily it has been acquired by Magnolia and will be released early in 2010.

Denis’ immersive, knotty White Material is a return to the more allusive, abstract style of L’intrus after the more straightforward family drama of 35 Shots of Rum, with Material’s multiple flashbacks and fragmentary narrative. Set in an unnamed African country (although shot in Cameroon) suffering from a protracted civil war, Isabelle Huppert’s Marie is hanging on to her family’s coffee plantation long after safety would dictate she return to France. Denis’ first film without cinematographer Agnes Godard since 1990s No Fear No Die(Bruno Dumont’s regular DP Yves Cape takes the reins here), it still maintains her tactile, overwhelmingly physical sense of space. The camera lingers on Marie’s “white material”, her upholstered seats, gold-plated lighters, and cotton blue dresses.

Denis lolls back and forth between these spaces of buzzing comfort and the pastoral scenes of rebel activity outside. Violence is generally kept off-screen, while ragtag groups of teens, and some small children, carry machetes and rifles along the rugged countryside. As the country descends into chaos, the boundary between house and country breaks down, and Denis repeats an earlier montage of household items: iron, bathtub, dress. Two armed African children enter the space, steal her clothes, muddy the tub, and are spirited away. There’s an extraordinary sequence where the child soldiers revert to an innocent state, play games, and fall asleep in Marie’s home, and Cape’s camera caresses their victimized bodies as if of a loving parent. Denis later dedicates the film to these “rascals” who have had their lives stolen from them.

This incursion marks the inevitable breakdown of the line between colonizer and colonized, and soon Marie, increasingly hysterical and determined to keep the only success of her life, is doomed to fall under the sway of the country’s destruction. It’s woozy and masterful, exploding into pure metaphorical chaos as the paternalism of France, the greed of the government, and the horrifying violence of the rebels break down the bonds of a corrupted society. It demands to be seen again, and I hope a distributor takes a chance on it. Hey, Denis’ previous film, the sublime family drama, 35 Shots of Rum, has had a successful run in NYC, so here’s hoping.

Quick takes:

Another favorite at the festival was Jacques Rivette’s small gem Around a Small Mountain, which is anchored by Sergio Castellito’s phenomenally detailed performance. A traveling circus is on its last legs, and Jane Birkin returns to the fold after a tragedy drove her away decades earlier. Castellito is just a curious interloper, but one with a silent comedian’s grace. His performance is essentially a pantomime, from the wordless car repair opening to his coiled tension and release entrances and exits, it’s a tour de force of timing and charm. No distributor.

Eccentricities of a Blonde is another remarkable sliver of a film, this one from 101 year old treasure Manoel de Oliveira. In setting Eça de Queiroz’s short story of courtly love in modern-day Lisbon, he gets great anachronistic effects from a poet’s recitation, an uncle’s growling rejection of a marriage vow, and the curling irony of the final, puppet-like shot of resignation. No distributor.

Police, Adjectivefunny about language and Romania’s bumbling law enforcement bureaucracy, nailing a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd. The Romanian New Wave has legs in it yet. IFC Films will release this next year (they are also releasing Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist on October 23rd, which was neither as horrible or shocking as you might expect. It’s a tossed off domestic horror film that contains moments of beauty, terror, and ridiculousness. A decent Trier experiment).

Trash HumpersThe title says it all, but I found this fake piece of found footage to be oddly affecting. As Harmony Korine and pals don elderly people masks and debauch around flourescent-lit parking lots and basements, shot in the oatmeal murk of old VHS tape, a performative truth rang out: humping trash is funny. No distributor.

To Die Like a Man: A drag-queen melodrama filled with graceful touches. Director João Pedro Rodrigues’ playful color manpulation lifts a few of the musical sequences to the plane of back-alley Minnelli. No distributor.

So, as it turns out, there was a vast scope in this year’s slate, and I only saw 8 of the 29 entries! If I didn’t discover any stone-cold masterpieces (unlike the previous year’s Headless Woman), there was plenty of bold experiments, minor pleasures, and strangely alluring waste baskets.