Isabelle Huppert and Claire Denis explore one woman's reaction to civil war.
One of cinema’s grande dames, Isabelle Huppert turns up on stateside screens more than almost any other French actress. Her roles range from a seven-feature collaboration with the late Claude Chabrol (including La Cérémonie and 1991’s Madame Bovary) to a turn as Caterine Vauban, the “dark lady of philosophy” of David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. (In case you’re wondering, she got yelled at less than Lily Tomlin.) Given Huppert’s 90-plus credits on the Internet Movie Database, one has to ask: When does she sleep?
“Ah! I sleep when I make movies,” Huppert says by phone from New York last week. “I think making movies, in a way—especially being in Claire Denis’s film—is being in a sort of dreamy state. And this movie is clearly between dream and nightmare, so it’s a way of resting for me.”
She’s referring to her role in White Material, her first collaboration with Denis, France’s master of the elliptical tone poem (35 Shots of Rum, Beau Travail). Huppert plays Maria, a white coffee-plantation owner who lives in a deliberately unnamed African country. Despite being warned to leave, she chooses to stay behind when civil war erupts—partly out of stubbornness, partly because it’s the only home she and her family know.
The project began when Huppert approached Denis about filming Doris Lessing’s first novel, The Grass Is Singing, but Huppert notes that Denis decided to make it a more contemporary story, with a lead character who was less of a victim. (Indeed, Maria’s ultimate decision gives her a uniquely ambiguous relationship to the land.) Denis, also holding interviews from New York, says she was inspired in part by the civil war that began in Ivory Coast in 2002.
The production filmed in Cameroon, where Denis—raised all over Africa—spent part of her childhood. “It’s this kind of adventure where you hardly feel that you’re acting, actually,” Huppert says of the experience. “You feel like you’re doing what you have to do, which is being there, being surrounded by this natural environment, which is so telling by itself already. The light, the nature, riding the motorcycle—she manages to make everything understandable by just the fact of filming things in a certain way.” Although White Material is easier to follow than most Denis films, Huppert notes that Denis rejiggered the chronology in editing. For her part, Denis says her refusal to spell out plot points comes more from a desire to add a frisson of mystery than an eagerness to confound. “I always think it creates something fantastically thrilling in cinema for me,” she notes, “but I don’t selfishly organize a maze to lose the audience.”
While critics have read White Material as autobiographically inspired—part of an Africa trilogy, along with 1999’s Beau Travail and 1988’s Chocolat—Denis sees her previous film, 35 Shots of Rum, which opened in Chicago in January, as somewhat more personal. “I think it really helped me to make them both almost together,” Denis says. “One story, 35 Shots of Rum, is a family story—it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother,” she says. On the other hand, with White Material, she notes, she’d never experienced civil war.
Huppert and Denis have known each other for years, but have never worked together, which added a thrill to the project. “It creates a specific, privileged relationship to someone when you work with someone five times or six times like I did with Claude Chabrol or Benoît Jacquot or Michael Haneke, with whom I’ve worked twice and with whom I’m going to work again soon,” Huppert admits. But are there any new directors she’d like to work with? “I’m not very much into this thing of coming up with names,” she says, laughing. “I’ve always thought it’s a bit vain. But of course—all the great ones.”
White Material opens at the Music Box on Friday.