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Out of Nowhere in Africa

MOVIE REVIEW
White Material (2010)

WHITE_MATERIAL_03
The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Isabelle Huppert has developed a very particular niche. With “The Sea Wall,” “Home” and now “White Material,” she is the go-to actress to hold a French family together in an unusual, isolated home environment, preferably in a foreign country. In “White Material,” the home is a coffee plantation in an unidentified African country, although it’s clearly based on Uganda. Maria Vial (Ms. Huppert) lives with her slacker teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert, of all people), his new African wife (Adèle Ado), their child, her ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor) and a variety of staff. War has broken out, with ethnic hatred stoked over the radio and people are starting to die. Fires have been started; there’s smoke rising in the distance; and bodies are starting to appear. Anyone with any sense is taking what they can carry and getting out.

In those circumstances, who would ignore a personalized warning to evacuate shouted from a helicopter? But nothing will make Maria budge: The coffee crop is one week from harvest. She personally hires a new group of workers and does her best to focus on the harvest, while simultaneously developing a peculiar relationship with the wounded leader of the rebellion, known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé).

Maria’s behavior is madness, such obvious madness that every single major character in the film comments on it as do most of the minor ones. Adding to our discombobulation, it’s difficult to gauge exactly what is happening when, as director Claire Denis has chopped up the timelines. After time, it becomes clear there is a before and an after, differentiated solely by Ms. Huppert’s wearing either a yellow or a pink dress. There are many creepy things in the film, but the creepiest is seeing another woman wearing that yellow dress. Meanwhile, Manuel stalks the plantation, playing soldier; he has clearly seen too many Leonardo DiCaprio movies. Foolish and delusional, in denial, or something worse, none of the white people behave like people who want to live.

Does the Vials’ whiteness make them less African? Maria and André both say they want to be treated the same as their black neighbors, but they reserve the right to claim racial privilege as it suits them. Maria’s behavior on the bus and Manuel’s entire outlook demonstrate this perfectly. The family is also obviously wealthy, and apparently used to taking their financial ease for granted. Is this what blinds Maria to the dangers circling them? Maria is clearly a metaphor — her family set-up wouldn’t be so detailed if the character wasn’t — but is it of race privilege, class privilege or colonialism? Ms. Denis’s point seems to be that white skin, or a safe full of dollar bills, might smooth your way, but in the end they won’t save you from a gang of machete-wielding child soldiers. But it’s not clear exactly what Ms. Denis, a Frenchwoman and experienced director whose childhood was spent in Africa, wants Maria to stand for.

Ms. Huppert plays straight, with her tense physicality expressing more than her face ever does. It’s also hard to imagine an American actress projecting such seeming indifference to her beauty. But Maria ignores her appearance mostly, and focuses on her land. The movie is shot by Yves Cape (who also shot “Ma vie en rose,” a film as different from this as it’s possible to imagine) in a dreamy, out-of-focus style where the camera sometimes takes Maria’s viewpoint to examine details such as flames, ravaged plants or the dust kicked up by a car. At other times it appears to have been shot entirely on a hand-held camera, which jerks around as if expressing the nervousness Maria does not allow herself to feel. Sometimes it merely observes: a broken lock on a gate, a gun in someone’s hand, clouds in the sky.

Obviously, there is no happy ending; but it’s to Ms. Denis and her co-writer Marie N’Diaye’s credit that there are no clichés, either. Unfortunately this is not matched with clarity. Maria’s motives are so confused and confusing, the ending is not shocking but bewildering. Instead of sending us into the lobby provoked to debate, we leave so confused there’s no point talking it over. “White Material” is trying hard to mean something. But what?

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