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White Material 2010
Description: Amidst turmoil and racial conflict in a Francophone African state, a white French girl wars for her coffee crop, her family and ultimately for her life.
Released: 24 Mar 2010 Director: Claire Denis Writers: Claire Denis (scenario), Marie N'Diaye (scenario), Lucie Borleteau (collaboration) Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam Genres: Drama, War
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White Material Reviews:

The setting for the movie is a West African, French-speaking country riven by civil unrest and fighting between the units and rebels who consist of children, many orphaned. The rebels' icon and unofficial leader is a former soldier known as The Boxer (a cameo from Isaach de Bankole). Directed by Clare Denis she presents the country's unravelling case and uses a non-linear narrative to loop back and forth within the 48-hour period that is the story's time frame.Amidst the mayhem we are slowly introduced to the owners of a coffee plantation, who are a white family of French origins: Maria Vial (Huppert), her ex-husband Andre (Lambert), their son Manuel and his grandfather Bernard. Living with the family is Andre's second wife/partner Lucie and their son Jose. At the mission we meet the family they are 5 days from coffee harvest and their workers are fleeing the plantation scared for their lives. They leave to return home because 'coffee is just coffee and not worth dying for'. Maria does not feel the same method and recruits some replacement workers to ensure a successful harvest. Meanwhile Andre, who shares the workers' fears, is plotting the family's escape which means selling the plantation to the local mayor who will ensure their secure passage out of the country. This is kept from Maria who has vowed never to leave.As happenings unfold it is obvious to everyone around Maria that the case is becoming less stable and increasingly precarious. She refuses to see or acknowledge this. Interspersed throughout we hear a DJ allied to the rebels, used as a sort of narrator, testing reggae and making pronouncements vs the existing government and white people, who are the 'white material' of the title.The film's narrative and characters create it hard for the viewer to apprehend what is event instantly and/or to like/relate to the characters easily. This is part of its success: the case and folks we are presented with are complex. Although of French origin and white we learn that Bernard and Manuel were both born in the country making them citizens. Maria has left France and never wants to return; she herself despises the white French folks ('these dirty whites ... they don't deserve this pretty land') and clearly does not perceive herself to be one even though the rebels and units see her as one such 'dirty white' who makes the country 'filthy'. Throughout is woven the theme of where is home and what it means to feel you belong and rooted in a case where others label you an outsider. Maria is a tough warrior but lacks sensitivity and does not seem to realise, or want to see, how she is perceived. We witness the tragic consequences of this to her, her family and the folks who work with her as the movie works to its conclusion.The movie is beautifully shot with an atmospheric soundtrack provided by Tindersticks. The colours, the heat, the expanse are well evoked and create you realise why Maria loves it so she is prepared to risk her life and those close to her. There is spare test of dialogue and Huppert excels at the role of Maria, a hard girl of several words. This is the sort of movie that benefits from more than one watch as Denis packages in characters and happenings all of which add to the texture of the movie and its politics.


Denis returns to Afriaca -- an undefined country there -- to discover colonialism and revolution in this movie that has more in common with her wonderfully mysterious 'The Intruder' (2004) -- though it's less successful -- than with her warm-hearted family storyline '35 Shots of Rum' (2008).At the center here too is a family, the Vials, French colonial types who own a coffee plantation, or did own one. And at the center of this family is the scrawny, determined Maria (Isabelle Huppert), as brave as she is heedless. Everything is falling apart, but she simply won't give up -- or even acknowledge that there's any danger.But here, as in different African countries, government forces are at fight with rebels and schools are closing and kids are turning into dangerous, thrill-seeking fighters popping pills and wielding pistols, machetes, and spears. The plantation workers are fleeing just at harvest time, and the Vials themselves are warned by a helicopter flying overhead that it's time to receive out. The rebel army's missing leader, known as "the boxer" (Isaach de Bankolé of Jarmusch's 'Limits of Control' and of Denis' original Africa movie 'Chocolat') has reappeared, wounded, hiding out in the plantation, which makes it a double target.The family itself seems to have fallen apart some time ago, though as usual in Denis' films, the relationships and family histories aren't meant to be instantly clear. Maria's ex-father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor of 'The Intruder') is mysteriously sick; he seems to know more than the others, but he is powerless; he reigns over nothing -- except that he is the true owner of the plantation. Maria's ex-husband André Vial (Christophe Lambert) has a son by a fresh young black wife, Lucie (Adele Ado). Maria and André have an older son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who has turned into a sluggard, and seems deranged. Soon after being attacked and humiliated by two black men (they rob him naked and slash off a lock of his blond hair), he shaves off the rest of his hair, takes a rifle and his mother's motorcycle, and becomes a wild rebel himself.Meanwhile André has made a deal with the wily black mayor (William Nadylam), presumably to receive cash to escape, and the mayor actually owns the plantation, and feels whatever happens he'll be okay because he has his own personal army. All the while there are messages over the radio broadcast by a disc jockey testing reggae and telling the rebels are coming. But troops in gray uniforms are coming to slay almost everyone, including some of the kid soldiers, and some members of the Vial family after Manuel goes over to the rebels.None of this matters as much as the fact that Maria, a type of foolish Mother Courage or life force, wars on till the end, even when the fresh workers she recruits flee, a sheep's head turns up in the coffee beans signifying doom, the power is cut, the gasoline runs out, and family members disappear or are killed. Maria repeatedly tells she can't go back to France; to a young black girl she admits it's probably because she can't give up her power. She also tells in France she couldn't "show courage." In short, she's useless anywhere else. She has contempt for the fleeing French soldiers, calling them "dirty whites" that never belonged here. This is her element. Unfortunately, her element is disintegrating. "White material," in English, is a phrase used variously by the African locals to denote possessions of the whites and the whites themselves. A kid rebel comments that "white material" isn't going to be around much any more.Denis is nice at creating a sense of the many-layered chaos. Her mise-en-scène is vivid and atmospheric. Yet something isn't quite right. The casting feels wrong. Butor is a relic from a better movie, Lambert is unnecessary. Duvauchelle, who has played rebels but determined, disciplined ones, seems out of zone with all his tattoos as a youth born in Africa and a good-for-nothing. Nobody can enjoy an indomitable girl better than Isabelle Huppert, but for that very reason it would have been a welcome surprise to see a fully fresh face in this role.As 'Variety' reviewer Jay Weissberg notes, the photos by the fresh d.p. Yves Cape are less rich than those of Denis regular Agnes Godard, but may suit the violent action case better, and the delicately used melody is wonderfully atmospheric. This is definitely a Claire Denis film. What's special is its sense of foreboding. You feel Maria is somehow bulletproof and yet you also fear that at any moment she'll walk into something she can't receive out of.Still, after the unbelievable warmth of '35 Shots of Rum' and the haunting complexity of 'The Intruder,' there doesn't seem as much to ponder or to care about here, and even if this is a new treatment of familiar material, it's a bit of a disappointment. From other director it might seem impressive and exceptionally original, but from Denis, is seems to lack something, some more intense scenes, some grand finale.Shown as part of the Fresh York Movie Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.


White Material is a movie about a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (shot in Cameroon). Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) runs the zone for her father Henri (Michel Subor). She has a layabout son named Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and a weak-willed husband André (played by Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame).The French units is withdrawing and the country is fractured into regular army, rebels, and newly-formed mad-dog local militias out for rape and pillage, sprung from the ground once law and order dissolves, like Ray Harryhausen's skeleton fighters of the dragon's teeth (Jason and the Argonauts).It's time to banish the White Material, that is white folk and the trappings of white living. Maria doesn't wish to know though and stays on stubbornly trying to process her coffee crop.The movie is quite cute and captures the feel of Africa on the ground, of the isolation and the wild beauty, but also the extreme lurking danger. Denis has roots in Africa and so manages a lot of authenticity. The dialogue is occasionally awesome, soliloquies in which Maria curses whites and talks about Africa in relation to Europe particularly stand out.Unfortunately I think there are low elements, Lambert isn't nice enough and his hero isn't even important (which goes for Henri too), Maria does something brutal and inexplicable at the end (in real clichéd Huppert style), and the movie looks like it took a severe amount of cutting as there are plot threads that are barely picked up. The movie has the feel of an overly condensed epic. The largest trouble though maybe the narrative structure, where the end occurs at the beginning, which in all frankness, and with due respect to a director who has entertained me with nice movies more than once, comes off as amateurish.As usual the Tindersticks deliever a unbelievable soundtrack for Denis, so necessary for an auteur to have a proper musical collaborator, but they basically paper over the cracks.The movie is nice enough if you just look at is as mesmerising anarchy, but it's not a multi-faceted Denis masterpiece. Isaach De Bankolé is underused as Le Boxeur, the rebel character general, he's a symbol of a powerful moral Africa, gut-shot and dying alone. This hero lingers in the memory.



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