Claire Denis‘s investigation of racial tensions in Africa has taken many forms. The underwhelming Chocolat, and the incredible Beau Travail both looked at different aspects of the experiences of a dying ideology, the formerly invading force becoming the hunted, or being shown to be in a weakened position through nostalgia or sexual desire. Both of these things are present in White Material, set in a present-day unnamed African country, one undergoing something of an insurrection; the flames of which are being fanned by an eloquent rabble-rouser broadcasting on local radio.
Under threat of having her apparently privileged position – actually her work is quite arduous, although her life is certainly better than those her live around her – wrenched from her grasp is Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert). She is the stoic owner of the Vial coffee plantation, oblivious to the troubles that are going on around her. Her estranged husband André (Christophe Lambert), whose parents and grandparents were born and raised in the area, recognises the danger that is starting to engulf them and wishes to leave, with his son Manuel in tow.
Maria is the centre of the film, and Huppert’s incredible performance as the oblivious white face in a sea of antagonism, only really recognising the people around her as tools or a means to an end, is a model of ignorance and blind stupidity. The opening scene of the film, in which she catches a taxi van back to the plantation, is emblematic of the situation that she finds herself in – it is filled with Africans, and she is only able to hang on to the side while others stare at her. The fact that her dress is white through that scene invokes the title, a racial epithet to refer to the white population.
Denis’s style is to tell the story visually, which sounds obvious with the medium of film but so often we’re told the story through expositionary dialogue, which is just not present in this film. We join the dots ourselves, form memories, and are forced to fill in the gaps. When she focuses on a motorbike on the drive of the mayor’s house, we’re confused. It’s only later on, when we see André on his motorbike, that we realise what’s happened.
That’s not to say it’s a difficult film to follow. It’s a straightforward story, but one told in a way that hides certain things from the viewer for dramatic effect. The ending manages to both provide a resolution and leave things up to the viewer, and in that way this film is successful on almost every level.