sat 19/06/2021

White Material | reviews, news & interviews

White Material

White Material

Upheaval in Africa, but Claire Denis's camera can't take its eyes off Isabelle Huppert

Out of Africa? Isabelle Huppert exudes that signature air of contemplation and intensity that obliges the camera to obey her rhythms

Isabelle Huppert has always had a wandering soul, ever since she cropped up as a strawberry blonde cowboy’s moll in Michael Cimino’s fabled folly, Heaven’s Gate. That was 30 years ago. Middle age has by no means withered but certainly has hardened her pretty freckled moue into something fierce and obdurate. The owner of that forthright jawline ploughs a self-sufficient furrow these days.

The characters she chooses to embody are, for one reason or another, doing it for themselves out on society’s limb.

In Villa Amalia a betrayed wife dumps every vestige of her marital existence to embark on an Italian mystery tour. In The Sea Wall a widowed plantation owner in Indochina fights a losing battle against illness, political unrest and family implosion. And now in White Material Huppert is back on the edge of the old Francophone sphere of influence, tussling yet again with the forces of imminent disintegration.

White Material is set on a coffee plantation in a former French colony in central Africa, where factionalism and corruption have brought violent social unrest as far as the perimeter fence of the land Huppert cultivates, as per usual, more or less on her own. The property is owned by her valetudinarian father-in-law, and nominally run by her husband, who has been more successful planting seed in the housekeeper than the earth. Maria Vial (Huppert) is the one who has invested body and soul in the place, not so much the villa in all its scrappy breezeblocked ugliness but the land around it. We never find out how she came to be here, merely that the idea of returning to France disgusts her, and that she has planted herself in this fertile burnt-sienna landscape much as her workmen plant the coffee. “In France I’d slack off, get too comfortable,” she says. Huppert to a tee.

WHITE_MATERIAL_04_newBut now they are fleeing. Vengeful revolutionaries stalk the outback, among them orphaned children with oversized rifles slung from slender shoulders, while local thugs have set up extortionate tolls on the road. One thing is clear. The French survivors of a colonial past, derogatorily known as white material, need to scarper. But Huppert won’t, even as a revolutionary leader known to followers and foes alike as the Boxer staggers onto the plantation, seeking a hide-out where he can recover from a combat wound. Thus the plantation slowly becomes the focal point of a swarm of ungovernable forces. Huppert brings in more workmen but alongside them come looters, vagabonds and uniformed military hoodlums slitting throats.

If this makes it sound like a rare visit for Huppert to the terrain of the political thriller, it isn’t really. Superficially occupying the same post-colonial patch of Africa as the adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, it is based on a novel by the Mari NDiaye, who was first published at 17 and has now been documenting the French-African experience for 25 years. Under the helm of Claire Denis, White Material is as much a broken-hearted love letter to a fertile wilderness. The pace is slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, set by the central performance: Huppert exudes that signature air of contemplation and intensity that obliges the camera to obey her rhythms.

If there is a cost to putting Huppert at the centre of any narrative, it is that everyone else's story pales, especially those of the pale-faced French characters, who in effect are relegated to White Material's white material. The husband is played by Christopher Lambert. It's good to see him back in Africa, the lithe ape-man of Greystoke now splendidly grizzled and louche, but beyond filching the plantation safe and planning to flee he is a walk-on. The father-in-law, bed-ridden and reliant on supplies from the town pharmacy, is even more peripheral. Oddest of all is Huppert’s son Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle), as paralysed by confusion as you’d expect any privileged white man born into a society that doesn’t want him. As the Boxer’s young flock converges on the plantation, he has a Taxi Driver moment, shaves his hair and plots savagery. The film doesn’t seem to know what to do with him.

The final conflagration has been prefigured in an opening montage. But the question that overrides everything is not what will happen to the white relics of empire or the indigenous victims of aggression. No, for all its homage to natural beauty and absorption in the wider forces of upheaval, White Material is ultimately fixated on delivering a conclusion to Huppert's story. And it's a shock.

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