Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 10, 2010

White Material

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

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…


  1. Marxism itself is not very fashionable in any school, really. I once had a history professor tell me that Marx was wrong because capitalism fixed all of its exploitative excesses by itself. What the fuck?!? No mention that it was mass working class action that forced industry to accept a 10 hour day, let alone an 8-hour one. Of course you can only think the way he does if you believe that Marxism is a purely deterministic school of thought.
    I have to admit I’m not too knowledgeable about post-modernism. My time is already so occupied buried in radical leftist tomes that I never really felt all that compelled to use it for trudging my way through all the high academic jargon of trendy French philosophers. The wikipedia page on Lacan was more than enough to send my head reeling. Marxist literature is already heavy enough.

    Comment by Rob — December 10, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

  2. Oh. By the way, excellent review.

    Comment by Rob — December 10, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

  3. Louis, although I haven’t seen “White Material” yet so I can’t say what she was up to here, for a very different view of black people in her cinema, please have a look at the film Denis made before this one, “35 Shots of Rum,” a beautifully low-key outing about the everyday lives of some black Parisian train workers and, in particular, about the travails between a widowed father and his daughter whose relationship has become too close for comfort over the years. (Not much Lacan here.) Her humanistic details are wonderfully evocative, and really show what she can do. I’ve always had an impression of her cinema as having a kind of buddhist clarity about it, in the way she observes her subjects with empathy (rather than sympathy), and how she employs just the right distance in order to make it rather hard for viewers to be judgemental about her characters in any simplistic way. It’s also a neat homage to Ozu (particularly “Late Spring”) if you’ve been moved by any of his films.

    Comment by Paul — December 11, 2010 @ 5:51 am

  4. “35 Shots of Rum” is an excellent movie for many reasons. But it’s unique in the way it sees black people in a white society. Like all immigrants they bring their own specific baggage. But they aren’t beings from another planet. They face roughly the same problems as everybody else.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 11, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

  5. Not sure what you’re implying by “unique” here. I’m also not sure I’d hold an artist like Denis to an ideological prescription, especially as she tends to display a very certain degree of open respect for her subjects, not least for the many black people throughout her films (“Chocolat,” “No Fear No Die” and “I Can’t Sleep” provide good examples). In fact, I suspect she may be more afraid than anything else of risking “saying too much” about them, which would then trespass into a kind of presumptuousness on her part, and with a resulting possibility of diminishing their dignity. Her approach has also generally suggested that she wouldn’t put herself in a position of unpacking anyone else’s “baggage.”

    A lot of her preoccupation has been (according to her) with outsiders and in general, the kinds of people one doesn’t usually see portrayed in popular films. Of course, these disenfranchised subjects are appearing in stories of which she is the author and are situated according to her perspective (one which sometimes treats alienation), but I’m not sure I’d say they read as being “from another planet” — I think sometimes her m.o. is just to remind us that people are often not so readily accessible or readable as most films like to offer up characters… she’s definitely not glib or “direct” in her approach, and things tend to seep through rather than get announced.

    Anyway, as I thought that “35 Shots of Rum” did present its characters as “having the same problems as everyone else,” perhaps I missed your point somehow…

    Comment by Paul — December 12, 2010 @ 2:45 am

  6. By “unique” I suppose I meant that I couldn’t recall another film where outsiders were shown as functioning like the native born in a big urban system. But then I miss a lot of films and haven’t even seen all of Claire Denis’ work. What I have seen of hers bears out what you say of her refusal to violate her characters with a facile reading of them. By the “not from another planet” business, I meant that her immigrants have come from another place in our same world. Essentially they are like us and like everybody else.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 12, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  7. Thanks Peter, for clarifying and correcting what is probably my age-inflected myopia…

    Comment by Paul — December 12, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

  8. Just saw White Material, and I’ll tell you what i came away from it with. First, the white family seemed all mad, bent, each in their own atomized universe, virtually unconcerned with anything going on around them. The old man even had a bit of a Kurtz look. The settler family had no mooring to the place, but some of them couldn’t imagine a life in France. The colonial burden I suppose, interesting in a way in that it portrays their existence as alien to themselves and to of course the black Africans around them. Reminded me a bit of Coetzee’s Barbarians novel too. If this were the intent of the movie, well, good, but it seemed to do a little too much protagonizing of the female plantation owner, as Louis said, at the expense of all of the black characters. It all seemed a little lazy, particularly the abrupt ending that tied nothing together, except for possibly some heavy patricidal/colonial self murder. Waiting to see if it sticks with me in the next few days, but ‘i think this one will roll out of my head pretty quickly.

    Comment by degentrification — December 14, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  9. I thought the movie which has stayed with me for days was about a family breakdown, it reminded me of a Somerset Maugham short story except with a post colonial francophone African country as the backdrop instead of south east Asia but it could have been the southern US during the civilwar or many other contexts. Also I thought the son was mentally impaired from the start, that his parents had perhaps been in some but not total denial about this and not that he had suddenly gone mad ?!I think Denis is a fabulous story teller and like Beau Travail this film has wonderful vignettes( like having the converstation with with a man who also isn’t leaving and he condradicts her excuse for staying by saying “you just don’t want someone to take what you have!Ironically her own family were already had taking it) and Denis produces a stunning ending .The vignettes do tell a story of an Africa in conflict and there are the pharmascists ,the guy not leaving ,the rascals, the boxer , the guys taking road tolls and Cherif who are all various characters not just a bunch of anonymous black people used as props as in Blackhawk down for example.much as i like Ridley Scott.

    Comment by Anna — January 17, 2011 @ 4:55 am

  10. Just saw White Material and looked for your review because I had respected your thoughts on many other movies. On this one, I beg to disagree. I found this movie really offensive, from the “un-named African country” to the portrayal of all of the rebels as depraved, except for the Boxer, from whom, as you say, we hear nothing. The colonial legacy was presented as though primarily in people’s minds. Also, you got the story wrong. The son and the rebels take drugs and fall asleep. The army finds them asleep. The army massacres the rebels and torches the Vial plantation. That seems an important point.

    Comment by Barbara

    Comment by Barbara Regenspan — April 3, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

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