Unsentimental, brutal, and beautiful, White Material is a harrowing experience

csjlong's picture

The center cannot hold in Claire Denis' apocalyptic "White Material" (2009).

Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) was transplanted to this unnamed African nation years ago when she married the son of a coffee plantation owner, now her ex-husband (Christophe Lambert). At first, the land readily accepted the transplant, but now, decades later and weakened by disease, it has suddenly, violently rejected her. Civil war has broken out, and the rich white land owners have become the easy targets for populist rage; rhetoric spewed on the radio has rendered them into "white material," no longer people but objects to be disposed of.

Maria is incapable of understanding the new situation. Whether due to willful denial or congenital myopia, Maria cannot see that people she has known for the past 20-odd years now see her completely differently. When a group of thugs stop her car at a checkpoint and demand money, she thinks the act of identifying them ("You're my son's gym teacher!") will resolve the situation, but old relationships no longer exist in an order that has been inverted seemingly overnight (overnight being the inevitable end product of a few hundred years of colonial rule, of course). Nonetheless, she insists on conducting business as usual, and is determined to harvest the new crop of coffee beans even when her far more pragmatic workers abandon ship to get out of harm's way. Anyone can see that it's a fool's errand, anyone but Maria.

Denis and co-screenwriter Marie NDiaye craft a fever dream that unfolds methodically and with a minimum of exposition. New elements of the nightmare spring from the landscape abruptly. The heroic soldier known as The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé) shows up dead and staring blankly at the ceiling in the opening scene, then returns later (in flashback) alive, but already dying from a mortal wound. As Maria's indolent, odious son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) floats on his back in a pool, we suddenly see two children brandishing machetes standing above him, ready for the kill. More children appear, staging an oddly listless takeover of the home where, for a brief moment, they play like children rather than like soldiers. The madness metastasizes further as Manuel goes Travis Bickle, the power is cut, and the world (of the film) is consumed in flames.

The mood is reminiscent somewhat of Herzog's "Aguirre" whose deluded conquistadors were also rejected by their new world and driven mad, but where Herzog increasingly opted for absurdity, Denis keeps her nightmare rooted in cool, focused realism. It's tempting to imagine her directing with the same tightly pursed lips and fanatical gaze that Huppert brings to Maria. Pallid, freckled, tiny, and rigid, Maria seems simultaneously too fragile to survive in this hostile environment, and far too strong to be warped by it. Denis favirs compositions which emphasize Huppert's slight frame, situating her as a blonde dot in a vast earth-toned landscape that is not merely indifferent, but actively seeks to expel her. Huppert, an actress I am willing to watch (and keep watching) in anything, is one of the few who can deliver a "fierce" performance without the Oscar-bait shrillness usually associated with that adjective. She's a bundle of coiled tension and neutron-packed energy who gets more from a gesture, a glance, or a shift in posture than most actresses get from years of pretending to study Stanislavsky.

Of course "white material" isn't the only target at risk. Children are not meant to be in wars, and they are certainly not built to survive them. The Boxer, the strongest of all, dies before he even appears as a character. Denis extinguishes even the faintest glimmer of hope at the start and spends the rest of her time delving deeper into despair. Maria doesn't need to learn a lesson; the cause is already lost and there is no way out. We're just watching as the clock ticks down to the inevitable end. There's not even any thought of a new, better world emerging from the not-so creative destruction. Violence is violence. Death is death. And the fact that Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape depict it in a series of beautiful, concrete images doesn't soften the blow one bit.


The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The image is so pristine it actually looks a bit sterile to my eyes, but the image detail is incredibly sharp. Just watch any of the scenes with Huppert riding on the bus and notice how every one of the faces, even ones in the background, are so vivid you could turn each of them into portraits. The whole film is painted in earthy tones heavy on tans and browns with some washed-out yellows – the green leaves look muted as if to blend into this dying landscape. The 1080p treatment is rich enough that even the subtlest changes in tone stand out, making for quite a bit of variety even within this limited palette. The transfer is "supervised and approved" by Claire Denis and cinematographer Yves Cape.


The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The sound design is fairly sparse (appropriately so) so there aren't a lot of surround effects, but the film's main sound element is a moody, ambient score by The Tindersticks, and the lossless transfer serves it well at least to my admittedly untrained ears. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.


Criterion has included new interviews (recorded in 2010) with Claire Denis (24 min.), Isabelle Huppert (14 min.) and Isaach de Bankolé (13 min.) Denis' interview is, as fans would expect, quite substantive and illuminating. She's not the gossipy type.

The disc also includes a short documentary (12 min.) by Denis about the film's premiere at the 2010 Écrans Noir Film Festival in Cameroon (where the film was shot) which is rather slight, but is still a nice addition.

Also included are a Deleted Scene (2 min.) and a Trailer (2 min.)

The 20-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Amy Taubin.


"White Material" played at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival to fairly indifferent reviews, or at least that's what I was reading at the time. By the time the film was released theatrically the next year, suddenly the reviews were more effusive and "White Material" placed highly on 2010 "Best of" lists. I liked the film the first time I saw it but felt it was "lesser" Denis which is still a compliment. On a second viewing, I find it more compelling, and truly chilling. It helps to see it in a vivid 1080p transfer as opposed to the lackluster screener I had the first time around. Unsentimental, brutal, and beautiful, "White Material" is a harrowing experience, rendered all the more effective by Denis' refusal to sensationalize anything. What she's showing is terrifying enough. No need to gin it up.


Film Value