Often French films can seem so “much ado about nothing.” Not so in director Claire Denis’ new movie, “White Material.” In it she tackles the philosophical and psychological impact of the colonization by whites in Africa.
The story unfolds during a brutal revolution in an unnamed African country at an unspecified time. Rebels and militia are at odds with one another, as European colonials abandon the sinking ship. Maria Vial (the legendary and stunning Isabelle Huppert) chooses not to abandon her family’s coffee plantation and risks everything — including her sanity.
As Maria struggles to harvest her last crop amid the chaos, we come to the realization that she’s motivated by the love for her country. She doesn’t consider herself “white material.” After all, her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) was born and raised on the plantation. Even her loving ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) cannot persuade Maria to leave as the impending doom becomes almost unbearable.
Denis (“Chocolat”), born and raised in French colonial Africa, doesn’t play politics in “White Material” — no sides are taken. She concentrates on her characters and their inner turmoil. Beautiful imagery captured by cinematographer Yves Cape and a haunting score (Tindersticks) serve to embellish the conflicting nature of the subject matter.
But it’s the ravishing Huppert (“The Piano Teacher,” “8 Women”) who drives this insightful film to greatness. Her performance is so incredibly unsettling and textured it takes the audience off guard. Her parting shot in “White Material” will leave you speechless — aside from a gasp.