Somewhere in Africa that was formerly, or is currently, colonized by the French, war rages. Both the government and the rebels have ordered Maria to vacate ex-husband André’s coffee plantation, which she has been running with perseverence and an iron grip. French soldiers in an overhead helicopter have beseeched her to evacuate the country immediately. Maria herself makes a futile attempt to convince her workers to return to work as they abandon the plantation on the open road. Interested in their own safety, these native Africans are determined to leave. Maria claims she will leave within a week. But she is, plainly, home, entrenched, as it were, in a vast graveyard. Although certain shots—for instance, outdoor long-shots with her back to the camera—make her seem childlike, little, perhaps nothing, lies before her. Like her marriage, her life, dust swept up by tumultuous history, is in the past.
From France and Cameroon, White Material is a calm, contemplative film; thoroughly absorbing, it delivers a number of bloody shocks along the way. Isabelle Huppert’s fine performance as Maria Vial anchors it; but its brilliance is principally generated by Claire Denis’s elliptical, enigmatic filmmaking.
Why does Maria, near the end of the film, out of the blue bludgeon to death Henri, her half-naked ex-father-in-law? Has the sight of her teenaged son Manuel’s charred corpse driven her mad? Is she fixing Henri in place so that he, already sick, dies in the one place, like her, where he wanted to live? Is she therefore striking out at him to certify her own end? Do all these explanations apply?
Africa’s betrayal of its independence is matched by the lingering affliction of prior colonialism. The title refers to a lighter. The film is full of destruction, including by fire.
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