With her newest film Claire Denis returns to the land of her first. Like 2000’s Chocolat, White Material portrays an African nation (this time unnamed) coping with its postcolonial legacy—and poised on the brink of fresh catastrophe. Like Terrence Malick, Denis imbues landscape with menace; here, empty soccer fields become bleakly ominous vistas, vacant streets turn foreboding, scenery that makes the film’s outcome almost preordained.
The impending doom is a clash between the heavily armed government and equally well-equipped rebel forces. In the film they might as well be forces of nature, so inexorable is their creep toward confrontation. The rebels are led by The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), a figure made legendary through street graffiti and government denunciation. Most recently, authorities have declared him dead, when in reality, he’s only wounded and taking refuge in the coffee plantation run by Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert).
Despite her status as a white coffee planter, she complains about the “dirty whites” who “don’t deserve this beautiful land.” When those “dirty whites” leave the country by helicopter, she refuses to follow. She’ll stay to harvest her coffee beans, even as her black workers, also leave her behind. As everyone around her anticipates the coming danger, only Madame Vial refuses to see it.
She has an investment in not recognizing the precariousness of her position, in remaining denying responsibility and, to a point, rationality. Others see her white skin and label her an oppressor. She is “white material,” presuming privilege and wealth. Radio broadcasts declare, “For the white material, the party’s over.” (These exhortations to violence echo those of pre-genocide Rwanda, among other places.) Seemingly oblivious to the radio’s role as both mirror of public sentiment and inspiration for public action, Maria ignores it. “If we start believing the radio…” she tells a frightened worker, never completing her sentence. For her to heed such warnings would be to admit her place in a corrupt power structure, about to erupt in violence.
Maria has an oppressor’s imperiousness but doesn’t see it: she functions at level of disengagement worthy of Marie Antoinette, and Denis isolates her in virtually every frame. Stopped at a rebel checkpoint, she tries to haggle with the men pointing guns at her. She says she recognizes all of them, that they’re relatives of her former workers. She recites their names, unable to fathom their mutual loyalties trump her tenuous personal connections.
Her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert) is similarly wrong-headed, but at least knows to escape: when he tries to exploit their connections to a local politician to secure safe passage out of the country, she haughtily refuses. Running low on gasoline for the compound’s generator, she declares, “We know everyone here. Getting gasoline won’t be hard. We’ve been rooted here for years.” To André, her naïvete is suddenly alarming. She believes herself safe, believes that when rage comes to her doorstep, it will appreciate her soul rather than consuming her.
Her assertions of self-security, her obliviousness, repeatedly provoke disgust, pity or a combination of the two. One worker tells her he won’t leave, that he’s too old to start over. Not able to hear him, she responds, “I couldn’t get used to anywhere else, either.” He points out that his starting over isn’t the same as hers, that for her to “get used to” a place doesn’t have nearly the weight and risk of his starting over. He notes that she doesn’t want anyone taking what she has. More precisely, she doesn’t want anyone taking who she is, or who she thinks she is—which is, in fact, based on what she has.
Whether her actions strike the viewer as noble or as willfully unmindful and perilously self-serving, Maria Vial is largely inscrutable. Denis refuses explanatory monologues. We come to know Maria only elliptically, if at all. Her nearest approach to self-revelation comes with The Boxer, who asks why she hasn’t left. “I’m a good fighter, too,” she says. “How could I show courage in France? It would be absurd, no rhyme or reason. I’d slack off, get too comfortable.” In the next scene she carefully daubs on lipstick and dons a faded pink dress. Perhaps her version of a warrior’s uniform? She’s fighter with painted toenails.
Whatever Maria’s motivations, those around her suffer the fallout. She remains, perhaps inevitably, untouched. As enigmatic at the film’s end as at its beginning, she stands alone.