27 November 2010
In a fictional war-torn African country, a white woman insists on staying on her coffee plantation and harvesting the crop as everyone around her flees. This is the subject of Claire Denis' new movie, White Material, but that's about as much of a narrative as you get. The movie is a fascinating evocation of atmosphere, strangely gripping despite its opacity. Denis (or her director of photography) has an incredible eye for detail - painted toenails and earrings somehow jump out at you. There's something terrifyingly compelling - and tactile - about objects in this film, and I'm not sure why, or what effect that has on what the movie is trying to convey. Another thing that gets thematized is hair; the protagonist's ponytail and the wispy locks framing her face, boy soldiers hacking off a bit of her son's fair hair, a man noting that blonde hair means bad luck. It's chilling, but you're not really sure why. Isabelle Huppert does an incredible job as the lead, a strange blend of steeliness, determination, and tunnel vision so acute that it borders on insanity. Overall, it's hard to say what exactly the film is trying to convey. The fact that it's set in an unnamed place in Africa tempts you to see it as some kind of broader allegory, and it obviously indexes various colonial tensions, but to what end, exactly, I don't know. But it's definitely gripping, and visually striking, and, I think, worth watching.