“White Material” (2009): disorientation, part I

25 April 2011

Where are we? It’s an unnamed African country; more than that we don’t know. What’s happening? There are guerrilla rebels, bands of feral children with guns, soldiers, fleeing white settlers; but we don’t know how to feel about any of these groups. Even the character we follow most closely, Marie Vial (Isabelle Huppert), is an unknowable and unsettling figure. Claire Denis’ White Material is a bleak film made for white people (I think) about the disorientations that accompany political upheaval in a country where whites have long behaved as if they deserved the wealth they enjoy.

Critic/blogger JustMeMike and I have been mulling over this film intermittently via email for a week or so and, while neither of us seems to have definitive conclusions (aside from the fact that I like the film more than he does), we have many thoughts about it. Like Marie in the image above, we found ourselves a bit bewildered while standing on the road — and the professor in me says that to find a solution to such confusion over a creative document one must write about it. Better yet, have a conversation on the page, which is what follows: today with thoughts about the film’s structure, tomorrow with thoughts about how well it succeeds. [Spoiler alert: we’re going to reveal certain key plot elements if you haven’t seen the film.]

The best way I can imagine beginning is with a comment of JMM’s: he confesses that he began the film expecting to see a smarter, modern version of Out of Africa (1985). Yet in White Material, “this Africa has no beauty, no nobility, no animals, and the people lack understandable motives,” he says. It’s true: in fact, this Africa seems oddly claustrophobic, confusing. There are no heroes, no love stories. Indeed, the most terrifying figures might be the children, both white and black. Denis thrusts her viewers into the middle of a conflict that seems simultaneously massive and yet intimate, spanning large forces that none of the individuals understand as well as the rifts within families they don’t want to acknowledge.

One of the most obviously disorienting aspects of the film is its confusion of time: we see Marie at two separate points. The film interweaves scenes of a lost, confused Marie (Huppert) – presumably from the present, as she is struggling to come to grips with the chaotic world around her – with flashbacks to a different Marie, a woman more composed and determined to act as if there is nothing wrong in her country. Nothing captures that disjunction better than a scene in which she joyously, ecstatically rides a motorcycle down a lonely road back to her family’s home. She raises her hands up into the air, allows her hair to fly free in the breeze: this is a woman who loves her life and her land. But she stops when she finds a man’s sandal abandoned on the road. As she walks a little further into the brush, she finds a man’s bloody shirt. To whom do they belong? To her own son, perhaps? It seems clear she recognizes them. How will she respond?

Marie, her husband André (Christophe Lambert) and lazy son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) own a coffee plantation that has seen more profitable days, but perhaps not all that much more profitable. Although they live in relative splendor compared to the farm’s wage-earning Blacks, there’s evidence that other individuals in town are doing much better (the mayor, for example). Even if they’re just managing to make it all work, the Vials’ whiteness and privilege cannot be more obvious. The three of them are as blond as can be, and they represent three white responses to the world around them: André wants to sell the farm and leave, Marie ignores the political unrest and throws herself irrationally into the effort of bringing in the coffee crop … and Manuel, well, simply loses his sanity, shaves his head, and attaches himself to a group of marauding children.

The lives of the few Blacks we get to know are far more pinched. When a pair of boys sneak through the Vials’ home, picking up trinkets and clothes, they finger a gold cigarette lighter with a surprising gentleness. “It’s just white material,” one says to the other. Still later, a Black man explains about their situation, “When nothing’s yours, it’s just hot air.” In other words, it appears to be a situation in which Blacks have nothing to lose, but whites are unlikely to gain much by defending it.

One of the first things that confused me was Denis’ unexpected decision to place a white woman to serve at the center of this tale – especially because this is truly not Out of Africa. Why a white woman? I’ve racked my brain on this question. Marie is never a sympathetic character, yet watching her world turn upside down, and watching her flail about trying to hire farmhands to pick the coffee beans says so much about what political change means in such places, and how much people resist change. As JMM puts it, “She is just as ravaged as the country itself.” I think the film wants us to criticize Marie as much as the other characters, even as it has us watch her more closely than the rest.

JMM has another insight on the question of “why Marie?”: he believes “the center of the story is the country itself… not Marie”:

“Ravaged by war, children as soldiers, carnage, destruction… these are the usual results of war, especially internal wars. Haven’t countries themselves always been described in the feminine sense? Marie is — by film’s end — destroyed, if not physically, then certainly emotionally… just as her coffee plantation has been rendered useless, just as her business is destroyed, her family destroyed. She’s left alive but what can be left inside her?”

I’m of two minds on this. I agree that her presence hammers home the costs of war, yet Marie is no typical woman. Aside from her bizarrely girlish appearance (the long hair, the calico dresses), she doesn’t manifest a whole lot of feminine qualities (she’s bullheaded, single-mindedly obsessed with an almost worthless crop). But I still feel uneasy because it is this screenplay choice that makes me believe it’s a film most clearly aimed at whites.I asked JMM whether he thought this was a film designed for whites, and he responded:

“Certainly the target is a French audience, specifically a French audience that has experienced life in French Colonial Africa. History tells us that there can’t be that many people left with that kind of experience. And if they are around they’re still in Africa, or in France. However without knowing her intention – she hasn’t told us – or the audience – we are following Marie – the rebels who extort money for passage on the roads, the fellow bus travelers, the government soldiers, even the French soldiers who are leaving as the film begins, and the rebel troops – are transient visitors who either enter Marie’s space, or she enters theirs. So I believe her target demographic is middle age or older, French speaking, or people who have lived in Africa, or Algeria, or even Vietnam.”

I might even go a step further – the film speaks to whites in many nations that used to be (and sometimes still are) imperial powers, whites who don’t consider the long-term effects of their colonial power over others … or perhaps who want to ignore them. When a helicopter circles overhead, bellowing out her name via loudspeaker and warning her that the French army is pulling out of the country, she still doesn’t change her mind.

So what are we to do with a film so full of unsympathetic characters and unexplained events? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s follow-up post!

One Response to ““White Material” (2009): disorientation, part I”

  1. […] July 2011 Following our earlier chats this spring about White Material and Miral, the critic/blogger JustMeMike and I decided to choose more mainstream material this […]

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