White Material

France-Cameroon 2009, 109 mins
Director: Claire Denis

Claire Denis’ films aspire to a crystalline purity. Even when packed with the stuff of social and political unrest – war, murder, racial tension, unemployment, refugees, families in crisis – they give the sense of having dropped, in the course of their elaboration, whatever ‘message’ they may have intended at the outset. What remains, in the end, is a cryptic diagram of bodies and desires, environments and landscapes, confrontations and evasions, things said and unsaid. At its best (Beau Travail, Vendredi soir, 35 Shots of Rum), Denis’ cinema is compelling in its skeletal purity, beckoning viewers to enter the work and fill the gaps with their own imaginations.

White Material is at once an extremely physical and utterly abstract political melodrama. Working for the first time with novelist Marie N’Diaye rather than her usual script collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis deliberately leaves obscure the exact year in which the action unfolds, or even the precise location in Africa. The situation that is so vividly sketched here – rebels versus militia, as workaday citizens flee for their lives and are often caught in the crossfire – would appear to be an amalgam of many moments in contemporary history: Rwanda, Angola, Indonesia… The conflict is, to use a much-abused word, universal; Denis aims for a level of generalised metaphor, but always through very precise, concrete details. She is careful, too, not to take sides, at least on the most obvious level of the dramatisation; only in fleeting moments like the final shot (when a soldier secretes the red beret which is the memoir-token of the rebel leader known as ‘the Boxer’) do we feel her natural sympathy for the rebels emerge.

Of course, Africa has special and specific significance for Denis, as announced by her debut feature Chocolat (1988), which took off from autobiographical experience. The continent’s culture and its transnational mutations form a constant presence and reference in her work. In White Material, as always, Denis takes an oblique rather than frontal angle; she truly puts the ‘post’ into post-colonial, as the primal scene of colonial encounter and trauma is never quite as intriguing to her as the often subtle aftershocks of a faded imperial expansion. Hence the story here – and certainly the power-play of white dominating black – is virtually over as soon as it begins, the ‘white material’ (the title refers to a cigarette lighter) already in tatters. We first see Maria (Isabelle Huppert) alone on a road, already divested of whatever colonial aura she once may have possessed, and from that point the action (such as it is) is a bleak body-countdown to total devastation. Yet the actual depiction of violence is restrained, unspectacular, almost Bressonian; blood doesn’t burst from sudden wounds, but seeps slowly through clothes, or is listlessly bathed in by children.

Maria might seem to be a distant relative of Bette Davis in any number of 1930s and ’40s melodramas, or of the heroine of Doris Lessing’s classic 1950 novel The Grass Is Singing, which Huppert initially wanted Denis to adapt. White Material focuses on Maria’s determination and perseverance, but it never romanticises her. Maria’s stubborn wilfulness and her blindness to the social situation around her – not to mention its horrible effects on everyone close to her – create a bubble around this character; instead of empathising with her, we are invited to take up a critical distance.

Curiously, the ultimate tone of the piece, at least on an intellectual plane, is closer to Richard Fleischer’s much-derided slavery epic Mandingo (1975) than it is to most melodramas centred on plucky women; in a Denis diagram, typically, we watch all the figures flail around inside the contradictions of their personal and social positions. An emblematic character, in this respect, is Maria’s father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), who, while representing the imperial patriarch taking up space in a foreign land, is an oddly passive, even benign presence (frequently seen near-naked) who speaks of Africa as the only true home he has ever known; indeed, all references to France in the film conjure it as some ghostly, unimaginable, lost point of origin for these ‘white materials’.

Ultimately, Denis presents a ‘history of violence’ that has more in common with Lord of the Flies (novel or films) or Philippe Grandrieux’s paroxysmic La Vie nouvelle (2002) than with any Hollywood melodrama past or present. Here violence is a contagious, dehumanising force that sweeps everybody up in its psychotic madness, especially the troubled young Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle incarnating a character who in the 1990s would have been played for Denis by Grégoire Colin). At the symbolic centre of this maelstrom is the fascinating, mostly silent, largely inactive, brooding figure of the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), who – like Ben Gazzara in one of Denis’ favourite films, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – seems to be virtually a dead man from the first moment we glimpse him, his life draining away. He is in the process of passing over into the realm of myth, as a similarly wounded Johnny Depp did in Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Confident but somehow never completely satisfying, White Material seems to suffer from a tension between its status as a star vehicle (though Huppert is superb) and Denis’ usual ensemble-driven proclivities. Some of the film’s most powerful scenes – such as Manuel’s brutalisation at the hands of two kids – come when the plot wanders away from Maria’s point-of-view; Denis’ relief at being able to stage her usual explorations off the linear track of the story is palpable. Yet these divagations never quite weave the sort of polyphony (in both image and sound) that – at its height (eg in Beau Travail) – brings Denis close in artistry to Terrence Malick; the fuller pattern that might have emerged from a freer treatment feels shrunken, truncated. An early scene is indicative of both the promise and the problems inherent in the project: Maria on a motorbike joins a long line of such movement images in Denis’ work, but the depiction of the character’s exhilaration (hands thrust in the air, wind in her face) tends to rather weary cliché.

Although White Material achieves the director’s trademark dreamy fluidity – coaxing even the worst sticklers for narrative clarity to go with the flow and ignore strict demarcations between past and present, reality and fantasy – its structure isn’t half as daring as, say, that of her 2004 film The Intruder (L’Intrus), where the images created the narrative, rather than vice versa. Denis does employ the casual, even brutal form of exposition that suits her best: crucial information is conveyed on the fly, in glimpsed details (the survival kits strewn on the ground after a helicopter passes) or mysteriously brief, unanchored insertions of voiceover commentary (as when two unidentified locals discuss the white population).

However, like all her films, White Material repays repeat viewings, and grows with them. Not only do the more obscure or offhand pieces of the plot make more sense a second or third time around, but the already thick mood deepens and expands. Denis is a master of rhythm – here, an oceanic, slow throb that’s remarkably sustained over feature length – and of the fusion of image and music. Both in its overall structure and its incidental details, White Material admirably conveys the vision of a society in disarray, flying apart at every seam. In Denis’ Africa, there really is no place like home.
Adrian Martin, Sight and Sound, July 2010

A film by: Claire Denis
©: Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, France 3 Cinéma
Production Companies: Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, France 3 Cinéma
With the participation of: Canal+, France Télévisions, TPS Star, Centre national de la cinématographie
In association with: Les Films Terre Africaine, Cinémage 2, Sofica UGC 1
With the support of: Procirep
Production Executives: Martine Cassinelli, Bassek Ba Kobhio
Production Managers: Albert Blasius, Isabelle Tillou
Production Supervisor: Thibault Mattei
Production Administration: Laurent Berthou
Post-production Supervisor: Béatrice Mauduit
1st Assistant Director: Jean-Paul Allègre
2nd Assistant Directors: Anaïs Minet, Gervais Djimeli Lepka
2nd 2nd Assistant Director: Lucie Borleteau
Script Supervisor: Zoé Zurstrassen
Casting: Nicolas Lublin, Narcisse Mbarga, Richard Rousseau, Antoine Carrard
Screenplay: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye
Script Collaborator: Lucie Borleteau
Director of Photography: Yves Cape
Gaffer: Bruno Verstraete
Key Grip: Stéphane Thiry
Visual Effects: Éclair VFX
Special Effects: Pierre-Olivier Persin, Karen Fingerhut, Erwan Simon
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Assistant Editor: Sandie Bompar
Art Director: Alain Veissier
Set Decorator: Saint-Père Abiassi
Costume Designer: Judy Shrewsbury
Make-up: Thi-Loan Nguyen, Danièle Vuarin
Hair Stylist: Antonella Prestigiacomo
Main Titles: Charlotte Bayle
Colour Timers: Gérard Savary, Marine Lepoutre
Negative Cutters: GTC, Jorg Dettman
Original Music: tindersticks
String Arrangements: Lucy Wilkins
Sound Recordist: Jean-Paul Mugel
Sound in Cameroon: Christophe Winding
Re-recording Mixer: Christophe Vingtrinier
Supervising Sound Editors: Christophe Winding, Josefina Rodriguez
Sound Editor: Sandie Bompar
Armourers: Fred Cauvy, René Djikou

Isabelle Huppert (Maria Vial)
Christophe Lambert (André Vial)
Nicolas Duvauchelle (Manuel Vial)
William Nadylam (Chérif, the mayor)
Michel Subor (Henri Vial, the landlord)
Isaach De Bankolé (the Boxer)
Adèle Ado (Lucie, Andre’s wife)
Ali Barkaï (Jeep, leader of the rebel children)
Jean-Marie Ahanda
Martin Poulibe
Patrice Eya
Serge Mong
Mama Njouam
Thomas Dumerchez
Christine-Ange Tatah
Suzanne Ayuck
Daniel Tchangang (José)
Lionnel Messi Inoussa
Antoine Ndichut
Wakeu Fogaing
Denise Djuikom
Marie-Françoise Wouogo
Christian Bitang
Justin Ambassa
Bernard Yopa
M. Ibrahim
Catherine Matzi
Madeleine Manipet
Ebenezer Repombia
Armand Tamo
La Petite Poupou Poutougnigni
Junior Ndam, Ousmane Djam, Astrid Nganong, André Penka, Ferdinand Fondini, Thierry Kondep, William Touazong, Ibrahim Moutala, Nelson Tapio Bili, Delphine Yenda, Amadou Yaya, Joël Yimeli, Jafarou Abdou, Aïcha Ndam, Aoudou Foupa Aponini, Rodrigue Fomata, Abraham Walache, Antoine Ndichut, Etienne Njaourou, Marsile Yene, Dorothée Ngouem, Basile Kamga, Gervais Batcharon (child soldiers)
Amadou Mfongoun, Daïrou Michinawa, Amadou Njoya, Pierre Balla, John Hakem, Alain Douala, Rafihou, Emmanuel Fotie, Menoudi, Boniface Noyongoyo, Arnaud Ndam, Jacques Chirac, Benjamin Kijike, Omar Sanda, Mbeyap Njuwou, Saïdou Yarou (plantation workers)
Alexandre Souffo, Maître Charlie, Achille Ngwem, Maître Mathias, Abdel Cherif, Chouaïbou (bandits)
Germain Gnamsie Moumie, Hugues Tchoumegne, Elvis Petro, Richard Rangou, Nsangou Saidou, Vincent Tantoh, Lamaré Njikam, Salifou Dongoua, Cédric Attely, Félix Fifen (Cherif’s militia)

France-Cameroon 2009©
106 mins

The screening on Wed 6 Dec will include an intro by film curator Abiba Coulibaly

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg)
Fri 1 Dec 14:40; Wed 13 Dec 18:20 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Sun 17 Dec 18:45; Wed 20 Dec 20:55
The Passenger
Sat 2 Dec 20:20 (+ pre-recorded intro by Jason Wood, BFI Executive Director of Public Programmes & Audiences); Sun 10 Dec 15:45; Wed 27 Dec 17:50
After Life (Wandafuru Ralfu)
Sun 3 Dec 12:45; Tue 12 Dec 17:15; Wed 27 Dec 14:40; Sat 30 Dec 20:20
My Night with Maud (Ma Nuit chez Maud)
Mon 4 Dec 18:15; Thu 14 Dec 20:50; Thu 28 Dec 18:15
Five Easy Pieces
Tue 5 Dec 14:30; Sat 9 Dec 20:55; Tue 19 Dec 18:15; Fri 29 Dec 18:20
White Material
Wed 6 Dec 18:10 (+ intro by film curator Abiba Coulibaly); Fri 29 Dec 20:45
Boyz N the Hood
Thu 7 Dec 20:35; Sat 16 Dec 18:15; Sat 23 Dec 20:40
Meet Me in St Louis
Fri 8 Dec 18:10 (+ intro by writer Richard Dyer); Wed 20 Dec 14:30; Thu 21 Dec 18:10; Sat 23 Dec 11:50
It’s a Wonderful Life
Wed 13 Dec 18:10; Sat 16 Dec 20:25; Mon 18 Dec 20:25; Wed 20 Dec 18:10; Fri 22 Dec 14:30, 20:25; Sat 23 Dec 18:10
The Shop around the Corner
Fri 15 Dec 18:20; Mon 18 Dec 14:30; Thu 21 Dec 20:45; Sat 30 Dec 12:20
Remember the Night
Sun 17 Dec 12:15; Tue 19 Dec 20:40
Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander)
Sat 23 Dec 14:20; Fri 29 Dec 13:30; Sat 30 Dec 13:00

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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