Isabelle Huppert gives a superb lead performance as a Frenchwoman clinging to her plantation in Africa in the midst of chaotic regime change. White Material takes director Claire Denis back to Africa, where she grew up. The combination of Huppert and Denis, plus the added bonus of Christopher Lambert returning to serious acting, should be enough to give White Material arthouse legs.
Denis often places the family at the heart of her films; typically they're the focus of all tension and a destructive force. Such a universe provides Huppert with a fitting role and simultaneously offers Denis a return to her roots; Denis spent her entire childhood in Cameroon and based her debut feature, 1998 Cannes official competition title Chocolat, in the African country.
The unnamed nation in White Material is a bleak landscape, scorched by the sun and ravaged by civil war. In this land one family, the Vials, stands firm and refuses to leave their plantation. Most of the privileged expatriates have fled back home, deciding to get out before the situation turns really nasty. But Maria (Huppert) is determined to bring in her plantation's coffee crops. As her local workers desert her because of the dangerous situation, she's steadfast and protects her unusual family. Her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) is desperately trying to cut a deal with the local leaders and escape. Her father-in-law (Michel Subor) is quietly witnessing the end of an era. Her spoiled teenage son (Nicolas Duvauchelle from The Girl On The Train) appears to be losing it.
As it was in her last film, 35 Shots of Rum, Denis' storytelling is far from easy - so much of the narrative is built on relationships and the silences between patches of dialogue. Yet it is easy to submit yourself to her intricate patchwork.
The role of Maria fits Huppert like a glove, and she's amazing in it - her physical slightness only serves to heighten the strength of Maria's will. Lambert (Subway, Highlander) finally receives a part he deserves after a long time in lesser roles.
The director's long-standing engagement with black and African culture (from her immigrant drama No Fear, No Die to 35 Shots) has also allowed her to explore ideas that, in the hands of other filmmakers, might be whittled down to oversimplified racial divisiveness.
Co-written by Denis and Marie N'Diaye, a Goncourt-winning French novelist of Senegalese extraction, White Material addresses the untenable condition of latter-day colonialists clutching at questionable roots.
This is one of Denis's most provocative films and also one of her most compelling.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor and William Nadylam
Director: Claire Denis
Screenwriter: Claire Denis and Marie N'Diaye
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
Genre: Drama; French-language, subtitled
Running time: 102 min
Release date: November 19 NY