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!

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!