“White Material”: disorientation, part II

26 April 2011

After yesterday’s post laying out some of the plot and directorial decisions in Claire Denis’ White Material, today critic/blogger JustMeMike and I continue our conversation about the film from a broader perspective: does it work? Is this a good film? (Also, JMM has reminded me to say, in case it’s not obvious to you already, that this film is most decidedly an art-house or indie drama; we’re taking it for granted that it’s too subtle and challenging – not to mention disturbing — for many viewers.) Is this film so open-ended, so ambiguous, as to be a disappointing example of the filmic art?

I mentioned yesterday that I believe I like the film more than JMM did; I say this because early in our emails exchange he wrote: “I am conflicted by the film to say the least. … Is it me — or has Claire Denis botched this film so badly?” He specifically charges that the film is so disorienting that even the basic questions – who died in that fire? Who’s running for his life at the end? – are muddled. As for deciding whether Denis intent was to question post colonial capitalism, JMM said, “For me, living in the USA, this is too much of an abstraction — too much for me to ponder as I am not there,” he writes. “In fact, had I known that such a question was part of the subject of what I would see, likely I would not have wanted to see it.”

I, too, have my questions. As much as I admire Denis’ films more generally – I liked her recent 35 Shots of Rum (2008), among others – and while I think I see what she’s doing as an artist, I’m not convinced White Material takes viewers to a place where they gain greater understanding of the situation she portrays. In the end, I feel split between my intellectual self and the part of myself that opens up all her senses to films; I understand her films but I don’t necessarily love them the way I want to.
To get down to cases, let’s talk about the character of Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Marie’s lazy son. He seems to encompass everything wrong with white dominance over land, resources, and wealth in African countries like this one. JMM agrees: “Manuel must represent all that is bad about the whites in Africa.” He doesn’t work; when he suffers a psychic break of some kind (yet why does this occur? Denis leaves it fuzzy), he shaves off all his hair and goes on a rampage. JMM wonders if he rebels as part of a suicide mission: “so either the rebels will reject him (and kill him) or he will be done in by the government’s soldiers.”
After days of trying to understand what Denis is doing with Manuel, I think it’s this: his madness leads him to seek affiliation with some of the black child marauders. He even seems to want to team up with them. But this doesn’t mean he feels identification with all Black Africans. In fact, as he rampages through his grandfather’s house he attacks the Black housekeeper there and stuffs his hair into her mouth – one of the ugliest and most disturbing scenes in the film. After much reflection, I think he attacks her not because she’s a woman or perceived to be weak, but because she represents Black capitulation to white rule and white control. Even Americans have seen such behavior, perhaps most vividly in white youths’ over-identification with Black hip-hop or reggae stars. Denis pathologizes it in Manuel’s case, and shows how damaging it can be during a civil war.
What’s my complaint? That major plot elements like this are so puzzling, so clouded, that viewers as eager as me won’t be drawn in to know more, but will be held off by the multiple unknowabilities of the film. One might object to that arguing that viewers don’t need to understand all plot elements to respond emotionally and intellectually; yet as an ordinarily sensitive viewer, I think this film requires an exceptionally high willingness to live with confusion and disorientation. So while I appreciate her task in White Material, I think Denis leaves far too much unsaid, and that she has created confusion for viewers due to the confusion created by the flashbacks and the film’s strange characters.
The sole disagreement JMM and I seem to have concerns the question of how Denis wants her audiences to feel about the political changes taking place in nations like this. JMM wonders whether this is a story about loss – “the loss of status of all who are caught up in the revolution,” as he put it:

“Maybe Denis is mourning the country and the what she perceives as the loss of innocence of the natives. Yes they live a meager existence – dependent on the coffee growers for work, and maybe this is what Marie believes her purpose is. Whichever or whoever assumes the political control (she thinks) must also realize that coffee exports are a viable means of participation in the country’s economy – therefore she should be allowed to continue, and allowed to be safe.  But revolutionaries want to tear the country down then build it anew from a starting point of their own choice. They do not see the Vial plantation as essential – they see it as exploitive.”

He could well be right – and since he’s watched the film twice I feel I ought to defer to him. Yet I’m still inclined to believe that Denis is far too subtle a filmmaker to lament these changes. On reflection I’m starting to believe, rather, that this is a story that offers no clear heroes or victims, no answers, no romance about the past and no hope for the future. JMM agreed with that, and added:

“Yes, I think this is a difficult film for all viewers. For us it is even more difficult because we aren’t coming from a place of solid footing. If it is hard to understand the Director’s intent, harder to follow the story because of the film’s flawed time management structure, and we have also been placed in a situation in which we have no current experiences – living in Africa and living in the midst of an internal civil war – then we aren’t likely to see any hope for a better future for any of the surviving characters in the film.”

In some ways it brings us back to that shot of Marie standing on the road, not sure whether to go forward or back – it’s the one moment in the film when she isn’t driven by that blind determination to save the coffee crop. Frozen on the road, we realize she has nothing else, nowhere to go. It doesn’t make us identify with her – she’s far too problematic for viewers’ sympathy. In taking a snapshot from within the horrors of a civil war, White Material offers no recommendations or explanations. It acknowledges whites’ culpability in making an untenable political and economic system, but it also shows that black control won’t resolve those problems.

Whew! as I confessed earlier today to JMM, this film kicked my ass, critically speaking. But we’re talking about doing a repeat: a back-and-forth conversation about Miral (2011), Julian Schnabel’s new film. Stay tuned!

10 Responses to ““White Material”: disorientation, part II”

  1. Brenton Says:

    Why does the old white man get it in the end? Why does Marie kill him? What is his relationship to Marie, the govt soldiers, and the rebels?

    What I liked most about this movie was the amazing why Denis captured the ‘inverse colonialism’ that occurs during revolution. How white equaled weak, uncertain and powerless. The scene of Marie at the end of herself hugging a strange but helpful black woman captures a colonial Africa turned upside down. As disquieting as revolution is it does reveal what we don’t see through our usual lenses. Race still rules in ways we are blind to.


    • Didion Says:

      Brenton, what a great comment about inverse colonialism. It’s such an apt phrase — it captures how it doesn’t matter whether the Vials have been decent employers or generous people during their entire lives, or whether their former employees have been good workers and decent people their entire lives. During a revolution (or we should say civil war) people take their sides and punish people on the opposite side for the crimes of their ancestors.

      And re: your first questions: those are exactly the same questions JMM asked me early on in our exchanges, and I’ve got no answers! And I’m not sure I’m ready for another viewing!

    • JustMeMike Says:

      Hi brenton – re your questions about the old man.

      In the credits he’s listed as Henri Vial – which would ostensibly make him Marie’s father in law.

      As to why he is killed – there are lots of theories or interpretations for that.

      1) He’s too sick and old. He lacks the strength or will to pack up an leave and relocate in France. So Marie kills him to spare him the hardship. Some say this is an act of courage on Marie’s part.

      2) Marie kills him as payback for allowing the coffee plantation to be burnt down.

      3) Marie kills him as payback for allowing Manuel to burned to death.

      4) Marie has ‘by now’ lost her mind – and she is punishing Henri for either blinding her to the dangers that were enveloping the Vials and their coffee or …

      5) The Vials had put so much of their life into this African country. Better to die on its soil than anywhere else.

      Really, I have only guess work and theories. Unless Denis finds this and offers some answers that is all I will have.


      • Didion Says:

        Mike is way more on top of this stuff than I am. Those final scenes were the most baffling of the film to me. Is it supposed to be confusing, just the way a civil war creates total chaos? I dunno.

  2. Brenton Says:

    Thank you so much for your considered responses. JMM I like 3. Having had this back and forth with you guys I feel like Denis hit it out the park.

    “Is it supposed to be confusing, just the way a civil war creates total chaos? I dunno.”

    As a white South African now living in the US – whose parents grew up in Rhodesia – i think this film captures the layers and layers of complexity that life in Africa entails. Africa was and still is the arena in which Western “civilization” and the “traditional/feudal Africa” fight it out – often to the death.

    But in the middle of this particular ‘clash of civilizations’ are real people with real relationships that crisscross these two ways of life in so many ways. These relationships end up knotting and snapping under the added strain the revolution puts them under.

    Africa, like the Middle East, – and I’m not saying this lightly – is more nuanced than any one movie, or even book could ever hope to explain. There will always be more questions…

    Who was hiding the boxer? Marie, the workers, Henri Vial? If Henri, then his murder by Marie makes perhaps a little more sense. The boxers presence ended the plantations hopes.

    But Maries relationships with the pharmacist, the local coffee owner, the boxer, the land, her workers show that she isn’t just ‘white material’. She is human and deeply alive in Africa.

    Africa’s dehumanization of ‘colonials’ into material is as morally flawed as colonialisms subhumanization of Africans as resource. Just as Mugabe has blamed economic woes on ‘white settlers’ the dj/voice of the revolution in this piece does the same. But for better or for worse Africa and the west are family now. There will be no excising either. Any attempt to do so will involve morally problematic treatment of ‘others’.

    Dang, I should not have done this on my phone!!!

    • Didion Says:

      Brenton, you have now won the First Annual Joint JMM/Didion Award for Commenting Via SmartPhone. Not just for the length of the post but for the analysis. I’m starting to agree with you — maybe she DID hit it out of the park! Maybe I need to watch it again and rethink the ending.

      I wondered about the Boxer too. Was he running away from his role as a symbol for the revolution, or was he simply wounded and left behind?

      All of you need to see the amazing film, Of Gods and Men, that brings up similar themes surrounding the place of a monastery of monks in Algeria in the 1990s. Absolutely beautiful, elegant, and conflicted film.

    • JustMeMike Says:

      Thanks for your views Brenton. As someone whose parents grew up in Rhodesia which since 1979 has been called Zimbabwe, and you are yourself from South Africa, you have a unique perspective that Didion and I do not have.

      Claire Denis also has it – this perspective of Africa from within Africa.

      As a person with no actual experience in Africa other than meeting de Klerk at the airport in NY, and sending a parcel to a friend working in the Congo, I can only comment or react to White Material from the perspective of a viewer of the film. So anything I write or say about the film has no bearing on real life experiences.

      Thanks again for your remarks. By the way – I do not own a smart phone – so as Didion said – we especially appreciate your remarks.


  3. Raj Patel Says:

    Disgrace is a good counter-part to this movie

  4. […] of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The […]

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