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Images of the Day. Records of Material Objects in Cinema #6: A Guide to the Things of "White Material"

At its essence, White Material is an exploded chamber drama. A Haneke-style family unit (complete with a brutally bored son) holed up mentally, emotionally, economically and geographically encounters various interlopers while fighting to preserve a bourgeois sense of "integrity."

Take the anti-psychological scalpelling of time and space of The Intruder and combine it with 35 Shots of Rum' almost classical use of objects, and you getWhite Material, a film that partly reveals itself through the way things pass in and out of characters' hands within the space of a folded chronology. But whereas 35 Shots of Rum limited itself to a handful—two rice cookers, an iPod, a red door—White Material is stuffed with bric-a-brac. There, are, for example, the battery-powered radios, all of which are tuned to the same reggae rebel radio station.

Or Christopher Lambert's gold-plated lighter, which passes from character to character. A distinctively ostentatious symbol of colonial decadence, engraved with his character's initials—as though anyone else in this poor country could afford one.

A subtler indicator of wealth and power, perhaps so subtle that its bearer doesn't recognize its meaning: Isabelle Huppert's red cash bag, stuffed with $100 bills, which she carries by her side for a 20-minute chunk of the film. Out of it, she pays off bandits, buys medicine and hires a crew of workers to replace the ones who've fled the coffee plantation she manages.

While the motorcycle ridden by Huppert is a big, clattering, chugging thing, Lambert gets around on a colorful Kawasaki dirt bike. As with the lighter, whose presence in the hands of various characters slyly indicates where in the film's jumbled timeline a scene is set, the Kawasaki's presence alerts Huppert to the intrigues of her ex-husband Lambert, who is trying to trade the plantation she is scrambling to preserve for the promise of safety from the rebels.

Huppert's dress is, as Daniel Kasman observed, a character in and of itself, but I would go further and say that her shoes, which she's always changing (seen above: strappy red sandals), are character-symbiotes on par with Jean-Pierre Melville's hats (Le samouraï: the first film to put a fedora in a starring role).

Nicolas Duvauchelle, playing Huppert and Lambert's son, is defined by an object he wants to rid himself of: his blond hair. Mocked by the child soldiers who rob him halfway through the film, it symbolizes (for him, for them, for everyone) his inability to be treated as a native of this (unnamed) country where he was born. After going mad, he stuffs his shorn locks into another character's mouth and runs off to join the rebels.

The movie has almost as many machetes as it has radios, and though the threat of a machete-chop remains constant, it isn't until the very end that we actually see one used.

And there is, of course, the coffee, seen in every form, from raw to roasted to packed. At the beginning of the film, Maurice the foreman tells Huppert that coffee just isn't worth dying for and then speeds off on his motorcycle, leaving a trail of dust. This is blindingly obvious. But the tragedy, in a way, of White Material is that Huppert doesn't realize that it's just fucking coffee she's fighting for; she has convinced herself that hers is a moral struggle.

Like Devauchelle's character, the patriarch played by Michel Subor was born in the country where White Material is set; it's unknown if the same is true of Lambert, but Huppert mentions "going back to France," suggesting that, unlike them, she's not a local. However, like Devauchelle, Subor remains an outsider to the people of the surrounding communities, a foreign ("French") authority regardless of his birthplace. When Devauchelle, in his madness, decides to destroy that power, he does so by stealing and donning Subor's patrician purple robe.

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You think it’s really “just coffee”? It’s about much more than Maria’s perception of the commodification of a resource that’s in play here. Her continued presence on the plantation is a stand against anti-colonization, though she doesn’t resort to such dialectical language herself. Moreover, that just isn’t Denis’ way. The land is everything to her, it is her life. That Maria doesn’t see, driven as she is by the urgency to preserve what is hers, movement that is captured as dynamically as we expect Denis to capture movement, that she will probably be destroyed by these events, is the tragedy. Whether Maria stays put or flees, it’s a lose-lose deal for her.
‘the tragedy, in a way, of White Material is that Huppert doesn’t realize that it’s just fucking coffee she’s fighting for; she has convinced herself that hers is a moral struggle.’ i think it is you who has convinced himself that it’s only coffee.

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