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There’s a scene early on in Claire Denis’ tenth film in which a child soldier fingers a cheap-looking gold lighter and refers to it as “just white material”. What does he mean when he says this? It’s a question that wends its way throughout Denis’ remarkable film. Set in an unnamed African country, the inimitable French actress Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, who is resolute in keeping hold of the failing coffee plantation she runs, even as her workers flee and the country around her erupts into civil war. Her decision to stay seems wilfully naive in the face of the chaos around her. A helicopter whips up blinding red dust around her as the French military retreats from the area; similarly, Maria seems blind to the dangers she faces by staying. Even more dangerous: she is harbouring a wounded rebel soldier, known as “the Boxer”, even as her ex-husband André negotiates with the mayor to help his family return to France safely.
The “white material” of the film’s title seems at first to refer to the trinkets that two children, armed with a spear and a machete, abscond with during their raid of the coffee plantation: a monogrammed lighter, a necklace, a small statue of a yellow dog. Are we supposed to read these items of junk as symbolic of a more insidious invasion—one that Maria is perpetrating in her refusal to relinquish her claims on a land she insists will yield a crop of coffee in just five more days? Upon bringing a new set of workers back to the plantation, one of them asks her if the land is hers, and Maria answers that she doesn’t own the land, but she controls it. Her companion bats her assertion away, declaring that if the land is not hers then “It’s all hot air.” While I’d hesitate to refer to Maria herself as “white material”—a simple representation of colonialism and Western materialism—there’s something in the way she claims ownership of the land that nevertheless sits uneasily.
Maria’s son, Manuel, seems like a more obvious representation of this particular conflict: he is indolent and oblivious to the dangers around him in a way that his mother isn’t. He floats in a pool, blind to the creeping children approaching him with a raised spear. When later, he follows them into the scrub, they remove his clothing and cut off his hair—yet more “white material”— before he terrifyingly shaves his head, shoves his hair into the mouth of his grandfather’s black wife, and joins the rebel soldiers, joyfully partaking in the chaos as he hands them food from his parents’ larder.
The film remains deliberately ambiguous, but never maddeningly so. Huppert has never been an actress interested in ingratiating herself to audiences, but she’s also capable of showing inner strength and intelligence without ever seeming icy or emotionally cold. She ensures that the film never feels like a broad attack on the postcolonial attitudes of white settlers, but something more interesting and thorny. Denis isn’t adverse to overt symbolism—be it Manuel’s more transparent ignorance of the dangers that surround him, or the bloated figure of Maria’s ailing father-in-law—but she’s also interested in exploring more subtle racial tensions.
While re-watching White Material, I was struck by the odd balance between deliberate vagueness and specificity. Even though I’ve seen it numerous times now, it remains hard to pin down, primarily due to the script’s treatment of Maria, and Huppert’s masterful performance—ambiguous but never exactly what you’d call enigmatic. Of course, much of the film’s mystery lies in her character’s decision to stay on the plantation. Her resolution permeates every frame—from the shots of her running across the scrub trying to return to the plantation, to her schoolmarmish attitude towards a group of rebel soldiers that stop her trying to get into town. Refusing to balk at the gun in her face, she identifies them all by name. The man pointing the gun is her son’s gym teacher—why should she be scared? This might seem like reckless behaviour, but Maria knows when to back down, as she huffily hands over the money they demand.
Time and again she ignores signs of oncoming danger: the severed animal head buried in her coffee beans, the ministrations of her ex-husband, the fear of her workers. Is this mere stupidity or an arrogant hangover of colonial attitudes towards land previously claimed? Is Maria merely “white material”? If so, why then does she harbour a rebel soldier? Flashbacks suggest a more intimate relationship between these two, and Maria’s contemplative disdain for the French military, even her son, appear to echo the anti-establishment leanings of a local radio station broadcast that plays in support of the rebel troops.
As I watched, it occurred to me that White Material, ultimately, isn’t really a film to unlock—at least, not if you’re expecting easy answers. Towards the end of the film, another flashback shows Maria reflecting on her “half-baked… unfinished” son. In a story that’s full of allegories that don’t quite fit and characters whose every action is both rife with significance and difficult to understand, while watching White Material you’re constantly looking for meaning, both from what is revealed and what is not. And yet, its greatest strength is its seeming impenetrability and refusal to offer any answers that aren’t open to interpretation. Maria may be “white material”, but she’s not “just white material”. Denis may be drawing from her own life, but her film isn’t just autobiography, or about cleansing white guilt. It’s about the precarious position her characters inhabit in the moment, in a film where time almost ceases to exist, awash in a wave of flashbacks and premonitions. While looking for answers may prove irresistible, it’s the looking rather than the finding that finally proves to be the thrill.
White Material (2009) is widely available on DVD.
Ben splits his time between a literary agency and a small independent bookshop, both of which come with varying levels of satisfaction. He also previews film events for the Londonist.