White Material

White Material


Dir. Claire Denis. 2009. N/R. 106mins. In French, with subtitles. Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle.

Claire Denis loves to haunt our dreams. Her latest feature opens with a near-subliminal image of gazelles leaping through a field — it feels ripped right from the subconscious. And before the film’s midpoint, when the shallowness starts becoming apparent, her cryptic narrative volleys maintain our interest.

We begins at what seems to be the end, with the discovery of a dead revolutionary called the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) and shadowy glimpses of buildings on fire. Several more time-jumbled sequences introduce our French protagonist, Madame Vial (Huppert), and establish we’re in an unnamed African country in the midst of an uprising. Slowly we piece things together: Vial and her family run a coffee plantation, and her supreme sense of entitlement is such that she ignores all warnings to leave the country. This, even as her workers abandon the plantation, her husband (Lambert) tries to sell the business behind her back, and her son (Duvauchelle) — having been semiviolated by some machete-bearing African children — goes bonkers.

The story is clearly personal to Denis, who spent her childhood in Africa, and whose work, such as her autobiographical debut, Chocolat (1988), often takes on issues of class and race. And yet almost everything here seems off. Huppert’s little-girl-lost routine — she’s frequently seen sashaying around the scorched-earth landscape in a billowing pink dress — is eye-rollingly obvious, while details like the surrounding revolution and the son’s madness never rise above the level of conceit. When violence finally erupts, it feels like a desperately provocative ploy to slather on significance where there is none. What starts as an intriguing reverie ends as a hollow allegory.—Keith Uhlich


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• My Work: 2010

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