No one wants to applaud a filmmaker from moving away from the opaque, the ambiguous, and the open to something more easily defined, but French filmmaker Claire Denis—one of the great artists working in cinema today—has now made a second film, following 2008’s 35 Shots of Rum, that seem perhaps too simple, too obvious. Denis is a filmmaker I trust thoroughly and implicitly, so when someone who has previously made such alluringly mysterious masterpieces as Beau travail and L’intrus turns to the tangible borders of father-daughter relationship in 35 Shots or the comeuppance of white plantation owners in Africa in her new film White Material, I want to give the benefit of the doubt to these incredibly smart, sensuously textured, and often brilliant works. Yet one must address the changes apparent in the movement through these films.
Denis has never made such a thrilling film as White Material, one condensed down to the basics of movement, washed out colors, and a sandy texture. It’s story, co-written with Marie N’Diaye, tracks the blindly frantic behavior of a divorced French woman running her father’s coffee plantation in an unnamed African country as its political and social stability crumbles. Opening with richly dark images of a flashlight finding a fallen rebel hero laying dead in night’s darkness, and a scorching fire trapping an unidentified white as soldiers watch him choke, the drama of White Material goes back in time to trace a line woven by Maria (Isabelle Huppert) as she goes from the plantation to town, town to plantation, trying to gather workers, gather supplies, gather family (especially her beloved son, played by Nicolas Duvauchelle), gather coffee, and keep living a normal life. She sees but fails to process the meaning of an army of “rascals” and children spreading around the countryside, the local army’s scouring of the area for the rebels, and the French military’s evacuation and warning to Marie and her family (Christophe Lambert plays her ex-husband, Denis’s regular talisman Michel Subor Marie’s father).
If this makes White Material sound “neat,” that’s because it is. The story, its themes and their result are more definite than ever for this filmmaker who has made a career of tackling subjects from the flank through bodily impressionism, a focus on details, texture and feel that do their own kind of tactical, even erotic exposition, and ellipses that move around drama to find the telling moment, movement, and, again, sensations that express a thing, a story, a person, a genre, and an idea. One look at Denis’s horror film Trouble Every Day and you realize how little she needs to rely on conventional story foundations. And all these beloved things about Denis’s films are all in White Material, which is why it still very good, but they are at the service to a firmer, stricter, and more delineated scenario than ever before. What one realizes watching the movie is that, startlingly, Denis’s emotional and experiential evocations decrease in power in specific relation to how clear, clean, and conclusive her script material is. White Material feels less the result of an artist finding the world as she usually does than as the still-beautiful but less affecting and effective result of knowing what she was going to find.
That’s one interpretation, anyway—or at least one reaction. Another would be that Denis is evolving in an unpredicted direction, and that so used to seeing and enjoying the mysterious movements of this auteur’s work makes it difficult to see this new thing she is doing. Certainly Denis’s sensual editing is less at the service of tactile impressions as it is more brittle and structurally formed. The film is framed as a flashback both from that opening darkness and from the next scene, where Maria, stranded on the road from the town, is picked up by a public bus, and intercut with her are scenes which are gradually revealed as flashbacks. Denis, with Yves Cape’s handheld camera, keep to Maria’s extensive movements around the area to chart exactly how unconnected she is—unable to weave a pattern that stitches together the lives of her workers, her family, and local politics into something cohesive. Denis is too sexy to be considered disjunctive, but White Material is certainly her most jolting movie, since it traces the impression of a person experiencing nothing but breakdown—in bonds, in society, in people themselves—but somehow cannot see what is happening right in front of her.
Thus this strange “new” film form is comparatively off-putting, alien in its own way—accentuating the anonymous locations, form defining and encouraging the sense of not getting it, narrative structure more Resnaisan, rigid, captured, and, finally, feeling things as textures but no more than that. Things like relationships and motivation all seem under-defined within such a clear-cut plot, but that may be because Marie’s fate is inescapable precisely because she can’t feel or see the nuance and meaning below the surface of her life. White Material keeps it on the surface precisely because that is the quintessential failure of its colonial heroine.