A specter haunts the African continent in “White Material,” Claire Denis’ savage rumination on the clash between developing societies and their bourgeoisie occupants. In the vein of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the film probes the convoluted legacy of European colonial heritage with remarkable panache. A radical departure from the lyrical elegance of her previous film “35 Shots of Rum,” Denis’ latest is a feast for the senses, at once elegiac and defiant, disintegrating into chaos even as it coalesces into a maddening whole.
Set in an unidentified contemporary African state, “White Material” centers on Maria (Isabelle Huppert), a French proprietress who oversees a family-run coffee plantation. The world she inhabits is a violent, senseless one, brimming with conflict at every corner: Rebels have gained control over the country’s infrastructure, and the government has dispatched its own military forces to curb their insurrections. The film begins with the discovery of a corpse, that of a revolutionary hero named “The Boxer” (Isaach de Bankole), and promptly cuts to Maria’s breathless quest to complete her final harvest despite warnings from the evacuating French. We later discover that these two events bookend the film’s chronology. Denis cuts between time and place almost invisibly, creating an elliptical narrative that disorients and immerses.
“Coffee’s just coffee. Not worth dying for,” one disinterested worker tells Maria before departing the plantation for his own refuge. Steadfast in her allegiance to the harvest, Maria treks to a nearby village to recruit new labor, completely unaware that her ex-husband, Andre (Christophe Lambert), is closing in on a deal to sell the plantation. At the root of the couple’s woes is their twenty-something son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a listless, waifish pretty boy reluctant to take part in the family business. His curiosity piqued by fleeting visions of two African child soldiers, Manuel treks into the wild expanse, only to return to civilization in the form of a frighteningly transformed madman.
In a career defined by films like “Beau Travail” (1999) and “The Intruder” (2004), Denis has built a reputation as one of modern cinema’s foremost visual storytellers. Working from a script she coauthored with Marie N’Diaye, Denis commands the medium in every single frame of “White Material,” incorporating jump cuts, lateral shots and extreme close-ups to convey the film’s atmosphere of dread. Her camera is at once illuminating and expository, harnessing the expressive power of quotidian objects and images: flies climbing on faceless corpses, abandoned houses pitted against lush African landscapes, gloomy totems from a bygone culture, coffee beans cascading into a dark processing chamber.
Operating in stark contrast with its protagonist’s unwavering resolve, the film’s meandering, restless narrative eventually escalates into surreal territory. Child soldiers carrying assault rifles infiltrate pristine bathrooms; a cow’s head tumbles ominously out of a newly harvested batch of coffee beans; Manuel shaves his head and transforms into a murderous xenophobe. Trapped in a hellish continent with nowhere to go, the characters of “White Material” have little choice but to accept their fates – including the Boxer himself, the film’s sturdiest embodiment of integrity and order. Evoking the hallucinatory texture of Faulkner and Golding, Denis paints a portrait of pandemonium in bold strokes, empathizing with Maria’s frustration as her stubborn quest to maintain the present finally spirals out of control.
As Maria’s world crumbles beneath the weight of the white man’s burden, the sense of loss feels irreversible. By the end, the film’s mounting despair quietly overwhelms. The closing moments of “White Material” percolate with apocalyptic finality, recalling Yeats’ immortal words: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Africans and French, civilians and fighters, soldiers and rebels, young and old all converge into one phenomenological nightmare, orchestrated to the turbulent pulse of history.
David Liu is the assistant arts & entertainment editor.