Claire Denis and “White Material”

This stunning movie is a blend of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now) and Karen Blixen’s Out Of Africa (book and movie). Swirl in some Lord Of the Flies and you’ve sort of got the picture. Goodness knows why the right-ons love it.

Isabelle Huppert makes us thoroughly believe in Marie, a driven coffee farmer who refuses to recognise that it’s time to leave her unspecified African country, which has fallen into the hands of rebels and child soldiers. The French Army, her erstwhile protectors, are on their way out. A funky DJ on FM is playing right-on reggae and reading the runes, too stoned to know he’s actually on the losing side. Her ex-husband (nicely raddled or dubious in the hands of Christopher Lambert) is tired of hanging round and sells her out by cutting a deal with the knowing local mayor and his mini-army. As the film flashes to and fro through time (you have to watch the colour coding in Marie’s frocks), one realises that the terrifying rebels are going to lose, but the new powers-that-be may hardly be better for a white farmer. They bowl up to the farm and slaughter the child rebels who have occupied it but are sleeping off a massive drug overload. Oh, and her son has turned into a lunatic. In the last moments of the movie it seems that she has flipped. That leaves one sympathetic character, a rebel leader who seeks sanctuary in the farm and dies. One suspects he’s only makes a nice impression because he’s gorgeous and says very little.

This is all wonderfully executed, so to speak. But its message seems pretty anti-African. It seems pro-white and pro-capitalist and to that extent you’d have thought it might appeal to a right-winger such as me, even if as a corrective to the standard Noble Savage anti-colonialist norm of film-making.  

The film certainly seems to be saying that Africa drives all its inhabitants mad, white or black. For a lot of the time, there’s no-one to admire except Marie. After all, she’s the only productive person around. But, as a black African points out to her, she’s only determined not to lose what’s hers. Her position is not really stated, though, and certainly not by her. She isn’t in Blixen mode (remember Streep’s defence of “My Kikuyu”?). But Marie does strongly believe that when all else is said and done, she has earned her right to call Africa her home, and believes all the Africans who know her will willingly acknowledge the fact. I think the film is saying she hasn’t and they won’t.

If this is a true portrait of Africa, then I’m inclined to think the place is sunk. But I wonder in what sense Denis’s movie has captured more than a concatenation of all that’s dangerous about the Continent? I have too little sense of Francophone Africa to know whether there is any chance that this is a true picture of any plausible ex-colony. It had elements, to be sure, of bits of the Congo, but only the worst. It certainly is no sort of picture of Anglophone Africa, and plenty of bad stuff is happening there, to be sure.

Ah well. This is a compelling story and one can identify up to a point with an awful lot of the characters in it. But the movie itself is strikingly short of heart and – I would say – of meaning.

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Publication date

22 July 2010


On movies