Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Denis’ White Material

It is a term of disinterested contempt for the items left behind by the former French colonial remnant. It is not just their Johnny Hallyday CDs and whatnot. Maria Vial and her dysfunctional family also constitute “white material.” Whether or not they can ride out the civil war engulfing their unnamed African nation solely on the strength of her iron will be determined in Claire Denis’ White Material (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Vial cannot say she was not warned. As a last ditch effort, the French send choppers to implore her to leave the country while she can. However, Vial is made of sterner stuff than the French army. She refuses to evacuate until she has completed the annual coffee harvest. The rest of her family’s resolve is a very different story.

Her ex-husband Andre Vial believes he has cut a deal for their safety with the local mayor and aspiring warlord, the terms of which might even involve ownership of the plantation she is struggling to save. Following a humiliating brush with a rebel unit, her slacker son Manuel has adopted the skinhead look and a revolutionary persona. Meanwhile, her father-in-law wanders about like King Lear, apparently oblivious to the violent storm brewing. Increasing the precariousness of their position, the so-called “Boxer,” a symbolic leader and cooler head among the rebels, has taken refuge on the Vial plantation.

Clearly, Vial is operating under a form of denial as well, but at least she is action-oriented, recruiting workers amongst those stranded in-country with no means of escape. Anarchy is literally breaking down around her, yet she will not abandon her crop. Of course, there will come a point of metaphoric no return.

It is difficult to imagine a less hospitable environment than the Africa Vial calls home. The climate is harsh, the soil is infertile, and the factionalism is dangerously bitter. In fact, it is difficult to tell the rebels from the militias. One thing is clear though, with the exception of Andre’s son from his second wife, the Vials are white. As the Mayor ominously warns her, they stand out.

Given the revolutionary exhortations heard on the local reggae station, it is hard not to hear echoes of the violent hate radio that fueled the Rwandan genocide, though Denis keeps the exact nature of the conflict and combatants obscure. Unfortunately, that extends to the Boxer, whose reason for seeking shelter at the Vial estate is never adequately explained. Still, Denis viscerally depicts the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, fueling an ever mounting sense of impending doom.

There are a lot of ragged edges to Material, but Isabelle Huppert stands out as an indomitable (if perhaps foolhardy) spirit, a post-Colonial Scarlett O’Hara with a thousand times the guts of the weak willed men surrounding her. It is fascinating to watch her inter-family relationships, particularly with Andre’s second son with whom she shares no blood relation. Yet she accepts responsibility for this shattered family unit, even though she risks destroying it in her determination to save their Tara. In a departure from the genre programmers American audiences typically see him in, Christopher Lambert is also quite convincing as the undependable Andre.

Based on a novel by Doris Lessing, the implications of Material are fearlessly politically incorrect. Regardless of the fictional country’s colonial past, it is clear Vial belongs there. Indeed, the sight of the petite Huppert against the sweltering landscape is the defining image of the film, stark in its beauty. Though the ideological knee-jerks might have difficulty with its all-too realistic portrayal of post-Independence violence and anti-white racism, it is a smart, bracing film. Well recommended, it opens this Friday (11/19) in New York at the IFC Center.