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White Material

November 27, 2013

White Material (2009)
Director: Claire Denis
Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé

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Synopsis: A middle-aged white woman is frantically trying to catch a bus in an isolated outpost of an unnamed West African country. In flashback, we see the cause of her distress – she is Maria (Isabelle Huppert), a French emigrée advised to leave the war-torn African country where she is running a coffee plantation. She refuses to leave out of a desperate attempt to procure the last week’s bumper coffee harvest and through her haughty, hostile attitude to First World/French influence. But will her stubbornness cost her?

Review: This classic tragedy of a fundamental white incompatibility with Africa is, in a sense, quite unsubtle with its story of a European-owned coffee plantation and all its dysfunctional and corrupted personnel as they come unstuck during the encroaching civil unrest in that country. Unpicking the relative sophistication (or lack thereof) of the dramaturgy is beside the point though, as Denis’ construct is intentionally allegorical, and its classical beauty emerges more through her mastery of mood, sense of place and the ellipses in the narrative.

Some of the best sequences in the film are the most undramatic: the workings of the coffee plantation, the pans over the jungle landscape, and the remarkable scene where Huppert’s plantation owner goes to an outpost of her district to see if she can recruit anyone willing to brave the danger of the present situation to help harvest her coffee (the men emerge hypnotically and ominously after the village’s women do the bargaining with Huppert). Certainly, White Material speaks more to me about the primal brutality of civil conflict in Africa (a by product of how life is so impoverished and devalued in many of its states?) than a white man’s morality film like Hotel Rwanda. (November 2013)

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