Re:View – ‘White Material’

The Arts

Isabelle Huppert makes interesting choices.I don’t think I’ve ever completely disliked one of her films, although this, for Claire Denis, is fairly flawed. The project began life as a version of Doris Lessing’s ‘The Grass Is Singing’, but morphed into something else.

The ends of regimes are fascinating, terrifying times. Maria (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African state where rebels are challenging the current kleptocracy. Her workmen are leaving en masse, the roadblocks, manned by children she has known for years, are demanding extortions, and the supply stores are no longer taking credit. The ‘white material’ of the title refers to the stuff the colonists own that can be stolen and bartered.

Maria is facing insurrection from within. Her wastrel son is going troppo, her father is ill and refusing to leave, and her husband (a visibly decrepit Christopher Lambert) is selling the plantation behind her back. Oh, and one of the key rebels has been wounded and is hiding in her house.

In the face of all this you’d think that Maria would throw in the towel, but her blindness and stubbornness grows by the hour. The key question here is why she would stay at the risk of her own life. Unfortunately, we never find out what makes her tick, and an outrageously abrupt ending fails to make sense of what has gone before.

Equally confusing is Denis’ own take on the position of the colonists. They seem to be doing good by employing local families and producing something tangible, whereas the locals are either naive or corrupt. Are we meant to hate the French family simply because they are there?

Colonisation is once more occurring in Africa, this time from China, but every country now experiences it on some level. The simple division of Bad Colonialism/ Good Natives no longer applies.