French director Claire Denis would appear tailor made for the film studies departments of the most prestigious universities, starting from the fact that she herself is a Professor of Film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Her particular specialty is postcolonialism, a perfect expression of which is “White Material” now showing at Lincoln Plaza and IFC theaters in New York, two premier locales for art films.
My first encounter with a Claire Denis film was the 1999 Beau Travail, an adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” using French Legionnaire characters stationed in Africa. As a Lacanian strongly influenced by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who was influenced in turn by Derrida and Bataille among others, Melville’s homoerotic tale was made to order for someone preoccupied with what they call The Body in postmodernist studies. I have to give credit where credit is due. Although I much preferred Melville’s original, her adaptation was compelling in its own art-house manner as the trailer would indicate:
Denis’s interest in African “problems” has a lot to do with growing up as the daughter of a French civil servant who was stationed in Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon. Her decision to make “White Material” was obviously influenced by current events, namely the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Mugabe’s crackdown on white farmers. Since she has essentially made an amalgam of two very different processes, a criticism might be raised that she is not very interested in African reality. In all likelihood, this film maker might accept this criticism but deem it beside the point because she is—after all—striving for Deeper Truths.
The movie’s main character is Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country (perhaps it might have been called Zimberia since it is an amalgam of Zimbabwe and Liberia) that is being ravaged by civil war. The insurgents, mostly children or teenagers in makeshift uniforms, are streaming toward the plantation in order to hook up with “The Boxer”, the wounded leader of the rebellion (played by the renowned Ivory Coast actor Isaach De Bankolé). The Boxer is the nephew of one of Maria Vial’s hired hands and she does not seem bothered by the fact that he is a rebel leader and wounded.
Indeed, nothing seems to bother her. Despite the fact that the army has warned her to leave her property and despite the fact that “survival packs” are being dropped all over her land from helicopters, all she seems concerned about is harvesting her coffee beans. When her pickers depart in order to save their necks, she scolds them about being nervous nellies and goes to the nearby town in order to recruit a new crew.
As all this transpires, we hear from a disk jockey in a nearby micro-radio station who rants against white settlers and the government while reggae is playing. If most of the movie evokes Zimbabwe and Liberia, these segments evoke Rwanda where disk jockeys incited mass murder.
Her ailing father is more in touch with reality than her but refuses to leave the plantation because he is practically on his death bed and sees no need to flee. Her ex-husband, who lives on the property, has taken steps to sell the property to the mayor of the nearby town who refuses to pay him anything. In a time of social collapse, the property is worthless.
Finally, there is her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the most compelling figure in the cast. In his early 20s, Manuel is a total lout covered in tattoos who sleeps to noon each day and generally refuses to take part in plantation chores.
At one point he is set upon by two armed child rebels—one bearing a home-made spear, the other a machete—who cut off a piece of his blond hair in a kind of postcolonial symbolic action. Later on, apparently driven mad by this act, he shaves off the rest of his hair and stuffs a big clump of it into the mouth of the family’s Black housekeeper who storms off, only after urging her mixed-race son to become part of the rebel movement.
And to top it all off, Manuel goes off on his motorcycle, hunting rifle strapped to his back, in search of the rebels. Once he finds them, he invites them back to the plantation where they will merrily sack and torch the place together in the spirit of “Zero For Conduct”. Why this turn of heart for the tattooed settler? Who knows? At this point, Claire Denis is far more interested in striking imagery rather than narrative logic and she is quite good at it, I must say.
So, what drives this rather over-the-top movie forward is the conflict between a batty group of white settlers and a band of feral youth who function in this movie in pretty much the same fashion as the zombies in AMC’s excellent series “The Walking Dead”. When will the teenaged rebels finally knock down the doors of the plantation villa and eat the inhabitants? Oooh. Scary, Lacanian stuff.
As one might expect, not a single African has more than a line or two of dialog in the entire movie, except for the mayor who is a kind of mediator between the scary Blacks and the plantation owning family. It is really shocking to consider that not a single word comes out of the mouth of The Boxer, played by one of Africa’s finest actors. One has to wonder whether Claire Denis’s failure to make such an important character speak for himself is a function of her own post-postcolonial attitudes. If she had seen the excellent documentary War Don Don, about a Sierra Leone militia leader railroaded by an imperialist court, she might have gotten some ideas about how to develop such a character. My guess is that her film tastes run to Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, not such material.
Having said all this, I can recommend this film despite its questionable politics. Claire Denis is an excellent story-teller and cinematographer who is capable of spellbinding work. It is too bad that she is not one-one hundredth the talent of a Gillo Pontecorvo who certainly would have known how to bring a character like The Boxer to life. But then again, Pontecorvo’s brand of Marxist agitprop is not very fashionable in film school nowadays…