White Material | Re-view
We take a second look at Claire Denis’s White Material.
Even the greatest artists misstep sometimes. On the other hand, a triumph can look like a misstep when viewed in the context of an imposingly strong body of work. That’s the fate that befell White Material, the latest from French cine-poet Denis. When it opened stateside in November, the film was greeted by most critics as a minor work from a major director. More puzzling was their insistence that it was a detour into the safety of middlebrow filmmaking—Return to Hotel Rwanda or something close.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of coddling prestige picture Denis could come up with, but this isn’t it. Now available for home viewing, White Material looks conventional only in comparison to high-water marks like Beau Travail or Friday Night. Taken on its own terms, it’s harrowing and hallucinatory—a ghastly fever dream of colonial entitlement.
As in 2009’s Home, another undervalued French-language export, Huppert plays a half-mad matriarch clinging stubbornly to her property. Here she’s a European plantation owner in some unnamed African country; a conflict brews between the military and armed rebels—many of them machete-wielding schoolchildren—but Huppert’s Madame Vial won’t budge. By the time she grasps the gravity of the situation, it’s much too late.
Denis splinters time and space like a trauma victim sifting through repressed memories. Her greatest subversion, though, is of white-conqueror mythmaking. Like The Constant Gardener or The Last King of Scotland, Material refracts violence in Africa through the wide eyes of a Caucasian outsider. But it differs from those exoticized melodramas in its unsentimental rendering of a war-ravaged continent—the Africa of the director’s youth—and its savaging of imperialist ethos. Madame Vial may be a headstrong heroine, but she’s also arrogant, apolitical and dangerously oblivious.
White Material culminates in a terrible reckoning, with the sleepwalker awakening to find her dream of colonial domesticity burning to the ground. The film is a political thriller in the same way Denis’s Trouble Every Day is a vampire flick, Friday Night is a meet-cute romance and 35 Shots of Rum is a family drama. In other words, it’s just another triumph from one of our greatest living filmmakers.