“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!