WHITE MATERIAL B
France Cameroon (106 mi) 2010 ‘Scope d: Claire Denis
At least partially inspired by the heroine in Doris Lessing’s 1950 novel The Grass Is Singing, this is a film with Denis’ imprint all over it, but also one that struggles to emotionally grab hold of the audience, as much of it has the illusionary appearance of a nightmarish bad dream, perhaps a hallucination, as Denis accentuates the lush, dreamy landscape for an interior story of madness in the midst. Set in an unnamed former French colonial African country that is going through extreme political turmoil with rebel African forces mounting attacks forcing the whites out of the country, demanding that what possessions they leave behind, which they contemptuously call “white material,” rightly belongs to them. Shown in a fractured flashback style that makes free association use of time, jumping back and forth between events, and told from the ever more precariously dangerous point of view of a righteously stubborn and seriously delusional white family that runs a coffee plantation and refuses to be scared off their land, despite signs of vicious brutality all around them. Isabelle Huppert, in her pretty pink dresses, runs the coffee plantation, where even after all her black workers escape in mass to safety routinely hires more workers, claiming they only need 5 days to harvest this year’s crop or all will be lost. Her husband, Christopher Lambert, sees the writing on the wall and recommends they heed the French helicopter that urges them to escape while they can, as the French government is pulling out of the country in advance of a bloody civil war, but Huppert scoffs at the idea of returning to France, which she sees as regimented and overly conventional, mediocre even, preferring the open freedom they have here, even as it is disappearing before her eyes.
Because of the altered time structure, the audience is intentionally bewildered by the disorienting sequence of events, never knowing what actually precedes what is shown onscreen, which adds to the confusion that already exists from the escalating violence. While the family may be blind to events around them, the audience witnesses signs of danger everywhere, much like a ghost story, as armed elementary-aged children enter their house at will, but may as well be invisible to Huppert. Similarly, advancing rebel forces are little more than abandoned or orphaned children carrying automatic weapons and oftentimes fueled by unnamed pharmaceutical drugs which they take by the handful. More telling is the relationship Huppert has with her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a lazy, sit-on-his-ass, overly indulged grown kid who refuses to offer any help whatsoever to the growing family crisis, yet Huppert refuses to allow anyone to criticize his overt weaknesses. Instead he is humiliated by well-armed kids who leave him stripped naked on his own property, which sends him into a rage of senseless psychotic behavior, crossing the line with some of the domestics, finding himself without a home or a country that wants him, a metaphor for the whites losing their purpose for being there, especially with roaming gangs in the vicinity so willing to slit their throats, as they have nothing, while the whites have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
This is not an easy story to tell as African civil wars turning into a bloodbath are an all too familiar pattern that western audiences are familiar with, leaving behind images of hands cut off and mutilated limbs, not to mention tribal vengeance that is among the most vicious on the planet. But in Denis’s hands, much like the shirtless imagery of young men in Beau Travail (1999), she focuses on the shirtless young boys carrying machetes or the young girls with pistols or machine guns in their hands. These haunting images of children really drive this film, as despite Huppert’s presence in nearly every scene, she’s running around in circles like a chicken with its head cut off, while these lost and abandoned children are supposed to be the nation’s future. Both are equally dysfunctional and have little use for the other, understanding nothing at all about each other’s worlds. The languid pace and dreamlike imagery creeps up on the viewer, where by the end it resembles the French plantation sequence in APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (2001), where an apocalypse is brought upon by governments or people within an existing society that fail to heed the warning signs, as one can imagine the Vietnamese closing in on them very much like the children coming over the hills in this film, where the horror and bloody aftermath resembles the insanity sequence featuring the murder of Kurtz (Brando), where the only way to combat a growing nightmare is to enter the nightmare itself. Here much of the threat of violence is shown with meticulous detail while the actual murders themselves remain shrouded in allegorical offscreen mystery where the viewer only sees the aftermath. In this film, set to the mournful music of the Tendersticks, sounding much like early Pink Floyd creating a pervasive feeling of everpresent doom, they eerily blend into the same nightmare, losing all touch with reality at some point, becoming more abstract and metaphorical, where the funereal reality is lost in a hallucination of senseless and horrific violence.