White Material Movie Review

White Material Movie Review


Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial in this grim new movie release that’s directed by Claire Denis and takes place in post-colonial Africa. When the viewer first sees Maria she’s running across the field, all long arms and legs, and seems to be pursued, although there’s no one behind her.

Maria appears to be much too delicate to withstand the sun beating down on her, yet, she’s willful and in denial about the civil war coming her way. Once the viewer realizes she’s in such deep denial, one wonders what else Maria might be denying.

In the beginning of this new movie, a rebel called “The Boxer”, played by Isaach De Bankole, is found dead. The soldiers who found him then lock a young white man in a burning house. The music by Stuart Staples underscores the mournful images.

While the movie picture may be the end for “The Boxer”, Maria is still moving forward. Locals and French officials try to get her to take a first aid kit and warnings are shouted at her from helicopters. It seems that Maria senses that leaving will mean an even more certain death than staying. Denis, director of “Chocolat”, and director and co-writer (with Marie NDiaye) of “White Material, brings the themes of otherness and also of expulsion into this upcoming movie.

The viewer doesn’t know where in Africa “White Material” takes place but with its references to Maria’s family’s ownership, for two generations, of a coffee plantation and with its French background and stories about civil war and child soldiers, it seems to take place in an amalgam of Sierra Leone and Cameroon. When coffee plantation workers leave, Maria hires others, housing them in unbelievable squalor.

What is it that Maria cares about? The land, her coffee plantation legacy, or perhaps the grandeur of France? Her husband desperately wants to leave. Her lazy lout of a son, played by Nicolas Duvauchelle, doesn’t care one way or the other. Maria is determined to get one last crop of coffee out of the land. Eventually her willfulness seems to become psychosis.

Denis plays with class and colonial tensions and they shatter at the end of the movie. At the end, when almost everything has been destroyed by the war sweeping through the land, the lack of thematic definition and character invite misinterpretation.

At one point Maria says: “How could I show courage in France?” explaining why life in Africa is so important to her. It’s the most surprising thing she says. She prefers to be a romantic martyr in Africa over a long life in Paris.

The title “White Material” comes from the idea that, at the beginning of the movie, local officials treat her as in inconsequential piece of “white material.” She knows all of the men and calls them by name. The viewer has to wonder if the men become the way they are in the name of the cause or just because they had the opportunity to become this way.


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