White Material, Blu-ray (2009/2011)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankolé, Christophe Lambert
Director: Claire Denis
Studio: IFC Films/The Criterion Collection 560 [4/12/11]
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: French DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1
Extras: New interviews with Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankolé, Documentary on film’s premiere at Cameroon Film Festival, Deleted scene, Theatrical trailer, Ilustrated booklet with essay by film writer Amy Taubin
Length: 105 miinutes
This disturbing film that takes place in a scary unnamed African country in revolution may not be 62-year-old Claire Denis’ greatest film – that might be Beau Travail, which is coming out soon on DVD – but some critics feel she is the greatest director working today. It was shot in Cameroon, where Denis had spent some of her childhood. Huppert – in a masterful acting role, and mostly without makeup in the unflattering hot sun – is running a coffee plantation with her ex-husband (who lives next door with his African wife and second son with her). She doesn’t know that her ex-husband has other plans for the plantation, tied in with fleeing as the danger of the civil war approaches; she thinks her herculean efforts will be rewarded by her inheriting the plantation. The details of the life of those at the plantation are frustrating in not being clearly explained. Huppert’s own son inexplicably shaves his head, joins the rebels, and attempts to become his own poor version of the Marlon Brando insane commander in Apocalypse Now.
The rebels are led by someone called The Boxer, who has tattooed on his arm “Jamais K.O.” But he has a gunshot wound from which he is slowly bleeding to death, and takes refuge in the Huppert’s house, where she tries to take care of him. He has also lost his control over the rebels, who now have been recruiting the children who were orphaned by the civil war. I had seen photos of children soldiers before, but never before felt the horror well-communicated by these scenes in the film.
The film opens with French soldiers flying over the plantation in a copter and urging Huppert and her family to flee – that they were also leaving and couldn’t protect them. But she steadfastly refuses to be driven off the land, which of course leads to the impending tragedy. Denis leaves a lot of information out of the film, and does some odd and confusing flashbacks, but one gets the idea that Huppert’s character is not hanging on because of feelings of white supremacy and selfishness. She says she has nowhere else to go, would feel shamed to have to return to France, and even goes out and hires replacement workers for the coffee harvest when her regular African crew all leave, while urging her to do the same. The term White Material is not a French translation – it refers to both objects such as cigarette lighters, as well as the whites themselves – it has a menacing meaning to it, evidently representing the long history of colonial thievery and racism. The ending of the film is especially disconcerting and seemingly over-the-top, but the feeling of threat and general nastiness will remain with you long after the film. Not exactly a tourist promotion for a vacation trip to Africa.
The making-of documentary reveals that Cameroon customs held up the filmmakers’ lighting equipment for three weeks, so they shot all the outdoor scenes first, and with only a sheet as a reflector, which they eventually also gave up using. The harsh outdoor lighting and dark indoor scenes add to the threatening feeling, and the amusical soundtrack sounds match the images well. The two interviews are well worth seeing. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer couldn’t be criticized.
— John Sunier