The Auteurs Daily: Venice, Toronto and NYFF. White Material

 

The Auteurs Daily

White Material

"Claire Denis returns to Africa in White Material, a powerful recognition of the continent's tragic present that focuses on a white plantation owner desperate to hold on to her land, despite roving militias and child soldiers." Jay Weissberg in Variety: "Unsurprisingly devoid of the kind of faux-liberal displacement/wish fulfillment or colonialist superiority that mars so many First World treatments of the subject, Denis' film views the continent as a kind of drug, intoxicating yet perilous, that never leaves the system."

"Isabelle Huppert must get a kick out of playing harried, standoffish landowners in films about France's chequered colonial heritage, as it was only last year that she did exactly that in Rithy Panh's The Sea Wall, which also premiered at Venice." David Jenkins in Time Out London: "Yet, in White Material, the latest spellbinding work from Claire Denis - a director who, on the evidence of this and last year's wonderful 35 Shots of Rum, just doesn't seem to be able to drop the ball - her brittle central turn adds a layer of duplicity and suspense to this poignant exploration of the socio-political intricacies of an unnamed African state in the midst of a violent military coup."

"Having started as an idea for adapting Doris Lessing's novel The Grass is Singing (a project dear to both Huppert and Denis), the film - co-penned by the director and debut screenwriter Marie N'Diaye - soon became both a present-day and atemporal story," notes Gabriele Barcaro at Cineuropa. "It nonetheless contains echoes of the Nobel prize-winner's work, and even the experiences of Lessing's brother, who, like the film's protagonist, continued - against everyone's advice - to work as a farmer in Rhodesia, even when safety concerns should have prompted him to leave the country."

"I'm still a little too shivery from its impact to write it up in any kind of analytical detail," confesses Guy Lodge at In Contention: "indieWIRE critic Shane Danielsen said it best in our post-screening chat: 'Five minutes in, you know this couldn't be the work of anyone other than Denis - you can just feel you're in a master's hands.'"

Film-Zeit has begun collecting reviews in the German-language press. So far, there are just two, but they're quite positive.

White Material screens in Toronto on September 15, 17 and 19.

Update, 9/8: "It's a tough film, with neither Huppert's driven lead nor any of the slackers around her generating much sympathy," writes Mike Goodridge in Screen. "Audiences could react poorly to the stubbornness of Huppert's character in the face of impending and inevitable doom, but Maria's ferocious determination is just one step away from the madness that has gripped both her family and her adopted country. Her final actions are ambiguous and open to interpretation; indeed after a film of very measured pacing, Denis rushes the finale, leaving much unexplained in a swirl of killing."

Updates, 9/15: "Of course, postcolonial critiques are not wholly unexpected in French art filmmaking," writes Michael Koresky at indieWIRE, "and neither are dramatizations of war-torn Africa from white perspectives uncommon. Yet with Claire Denis at the helm, this is hardly the same old story. While less abstract than many of her other works, White Material is similarly open-ended and purely experiential, and its way of playing with viewer identification with its protagonist is reminiscent of such works as L'Intrus and I Can't Sleep. In this case, one might assume initially that the film's strong Caucasian female lead is in some ways a surrogate both for its implicitly white audience and its, well, strong Caucasian female filmmaker. The growing disconnect we feel to the irrational, stubborn Maria, however, makes White Material a frustrating and illuminating experience."

Scott Tobias at the AV Club: "The middle section of White Material could stand to be more purposeful - and Huppert's son's radical transformation in response to personal violence is too abrupt - but Denis brings it all together for a genuinely shocking finale."

"Though her method varies from film to film, no one makes the human body appear more beautiful and compelling than Denis and examples abound in White Material," writes Dave Filipi of the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Update, 9/19: "From the first image of a car's headlights revealing a dirt road full of wild dogs to the blissful view of Huppert riding her bicycle, this is sinewy, elliptical, ethereal filmmaking," blogs Fernando F Croce at Slant. "If this is lesser Denis, that's still miles above just about everyone else out there."

Update, 9/20: "Denis has never made such a thrilling film as White Material," writes Daniel Kasman, "one condensed down to the basics of movement, washed out colors, and a sandy texture."

Updates, 10/2: "Huppert moves you to tears and scares the absolute shit out of you all at once," writes Tom Hall. "For all of the politics and pain on display, Denis's White Material is ultimately reduced to the slow fracture behind Huppert's defiant eyes. The film couldn't be in better hands."

"Denis's new drama feels slightly undercooked," finds Time Out New York's David Fear; "you wish that Huppert's character were fleshed out more, or that the director's penchant for true bat-shit craziness were in full bloom. But the way she refuses to treat Africa as something other than mere exotica for the Euro set makes this an intriguing exercise. Denis still has poise to spare; she just needs to shape the material a little more."

Update, 10/3: "Huppert is for many a deeply polarizing performer," concedes Patrick Z McGavin, "but her deepening trauma and splintered emotional consciousness becomes a haunting gateway to look at and consider the material. Denis's filmmaking is as sensational and tactile as ever. It is Huppert's own ferociously ravaged state that leaves the strongest impression."

Updates, 10/10: "White Material descends, as it must, into postcolonial free-for-all - the vacuum, described by VS Naipaul and JM Coetzee, quickly filled with long-nursed resentments and gnawing hungers," writes the L's Mark Asch. "But despite its violence (mostly inches offscreen), the engine of Denis's film is Maria's quixotic, dangerous, impossible love for what she considers, despite the evident opinions of others, to be her home."

José Teodoro interviews Denis for Stop Smiling.

"Ultimately, White Material is vital filmmaking both on the level of global political realities, and also that of filmic form," writes Michael J Anderson. "Of course, its very impressionistic nature also makes it among the more difficult major works of 2009, and, for this writer, one of those films most in need of a repeat viewing. Nevertheless, however allusive it might prove to be, Denis's accomplishment is unmistakable."

Update, 10/11: "Physically, this new film is recognizably Denis; White Material is all motion." Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot: "Friday Night, L'Intrus, Trouble Every Day - they all focus on movement and bodies, and personality is strictly defined by what people do and how they do it. In this case it's even more pronounced since the bodies in question are caught up in harrowing life and death situations, so if we're talking generic categories (Trouble Every Day is perhaps a reconstituted horror film), then it wouldn't be far off to call White Material Denis's action movie."

Updates, 10/23: "[T]his minor Denis is a major film," argues Johnny Lavant.

Viewing. IFC's Alison Willmore talks with Denis.

TIFF 09: Index; full coverage; lineup.

NYFF 09: Index; full coverage.

 

Responses

4 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Daniel Kasman

    My most anticipated movie of 2009, bar none.

  • Eli Fox

    It’s unfortunate that because of scheduling issues I have to wait until the 19th to see it, but what an ending it will make to my festival experience….

  • KJ

    What you said, Daniel. Denis is matchless. She is it for me.

  • KarstenM

    I’m close to seconding you on that, Daniel Kasman.

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