A lot is left unsaid or unexplained in White Material. Director Claire Denis (Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day), who has always favored images over dialogue, takes an elliptical approach to her portrait of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the French boss of a coffee plantation in an unspecified African country on the cusp of civil war. Ignoring the pleas of the French army, which is fleeing the increasingly volatile and dangerous region, Maria is obsessed with harvesting her latest crop by any means necessary.
Why is this intelligent, capable woman so intent on keeping herself and her family in danger? The movie only provides cryptic clues (“How could I show courage in France?” she tells one person; “I have nowhere to go,” she tells another). Maria ignores the pleas of her ex-husband Andre (Christophe Lambert), who is also pushing for them to leave, and tries to motivate her bored 20-year-old son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who spends his days dozing in bed.
Huppert, a slender, beautiful actress, makes you believe in the petite Maria’s oversized strength and indefatigable resolve. When her workers — scared off by roving gangs of rebels wielding spears and machetes — abandon the plantation, she recruits other men to help her harvest the coffee beans. She succeeds in getting Manuel out of the house, and she makes Andre agree to tough out the crisis with her. At every turn, her efforts result in disaster.
Denis, who grew up in French-colonized Africa and dealt with that subject head on in her 1988 debut Chocolat, uses a more fanciful style in White Material, intentionally blurring the lines between flashbacks and the present, leaving some central questions unanswered and gradually turning Maria’s courage into a contemptuous quality — oblivious arrogance. Maria has lived and worked in Africa for so long that she feels like a native, even though, as one local tells her, the “country doesn’t like her.” She simply can’t believe any harm will come to her, and her persistent denial of the unfurling reality eventually proves cataclysmic.
The movie’s title White Material is a term used by African rebels to refer to anything relating to Caucasians (a cigarette lighter, a necklace, a lock of hair). Maria’s great failing is her implacability — an inability shared by many colonials throughout history, to admit that her long time in Africa does not necessarily make her a member of its society. As the crisis worsens, and gangs of armed kids prowl the streets, the stakes become graver, and tension mounts, culminating in a pair of horrific scenes that are not easily forgotten. White Material isn’t a political film, nor is it interested in history. This is more of a poignant, haunting study of well-intentioned but doomed folly, embodied by a heroine whose bravery renders her blind to the world that is crumbling around her.
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Bankole.
Director: Claire Denis.
Screenwriters: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye.
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 108 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, adult themes. Opens Friday Jan. 7 in Miami-Dade only at the Coral Gables Art Cinema.