The films of the incomparable Claire Denis are subtle lessons in semiotics. They are like moving photographs, or graphic novels with almost no words: the viewer must (and can) put together the story from the images, like they are a fly hovering with no knowledge of past context.
The third of Denis’ African-centred films, White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as Marie, a French woman running a coffee plantation in an (deliberately) unnamed country with her ex-husband and son. With the government in turmoil and rebels running loose in the countryside, her workers have deserted her right before the harvest. She seems to be the only one determined to stay, even after the army deserts the country and her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) conspires to leave her behind.
This has probably the most comprehensible narrative of any of Denis’ films, and the most overtly political. Marie is as much a part of the land as those who were born there; but her skin keeps her an outsider. She never stops moving; if she did, she might have to realize that defeat is inevitable and the longer she waits, the less departure alive is assured. Denis creates both sympathy for and anger at Marie. She is not a stereotypical colonial overlord, yet her insistence on remaining borders on madness.
Those around her have their own madness as well. Her teenage son is humiliated by child soldiers who strip him in the wilderness; the citizens of the country are understandably hesitant to leave the confines of their villages, though are forced to for money. Child soldiers run rampant; they are not loyal to any side of this war, only to themselves. They are hungry, dirty, heavily armed children with no sense of right and wrong.
This is a washed-out world; a world where life is slowly dying and efforts to revive it are fruitless. When Marie goes into town, she changes out of work clothes into a sundress and sandals. These only proceed to make her stand out more in the bright colors of the traditional African dress around her. While Denis’ previously films have been experiments in surrealism, this is more impressionistic. It is not tied to a particular place, or time, but remains a snapshot of this world at a standstill, on the edge of a knife.
While perhaps not the masterpiece that Beau Travail was, this film still manages to pack a punch. A slow, haunting punch to the stomach that can see the viewer in the place of Marie, recklessly holding on to something that is not worth her life.