white material
January 25, 2011, 7:31 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , , ,

Claire Denis’ film White Material is an enormous dry African landscape; huge pictures and intimate details of landscape and war and family masterfully assembled; petty vicious politics and the immediacy of real people making life altering decisions in real time; quiet crescendo threat of civil violence; and a sense of dread that grips and tightens until the very end.

The geographic and generational center of the film is Marie a fierce slight French woman intent on keeping her Cafe Vail coffee plantation operational.  Like a vortex, everything spirals inward toward her and it.  The injured militant called the Boxer (Isaac de Bankole) on the lam takes refuge there to slowly bleed to death.  He is the local hero, and the de facto head of the militant insurrection, a band of child soldiers armed with machetes who are causing mayhem on their circuitous route toward him.

Marie also occupies the central of the three generations represented in the film.  France colonized this African place and people to make new lives and personal wealth.  In White Material, the three generations of plantation French expatriates show the dissolution of the colonial idea.  The old man, Marie’s father Henri, is the fading frontiersman believer, Marie the pragmatist holding out in the face of impossible odds, and her son Manuel the traitorous indolent destroyer of the colonial ideal.  Ashes to ashes.

Henri wears his old world entitlement like a mantle to the end, sequestered  and convalescing in his quiet grand estate house, and finally cut off violently when his daughter takes his life and ideals with a machete.  Marie is fully white African:  estranged from husband, father and – increasingly – son; her real relationships are with her African suppliers and workers.  Manuel sleeps away the first half of the film and eventually is animated by an anarchic violence without loyalty; he becomes the agent who leads the insurrectionists to their leader the Boxer and hastens the inevitability of civil overthrow and the end of his family’s coffee plantation.

Marie, the active present generation who can’t conceive of reestablishing life back in France, resorts to drastic measures.  But even the radical ritual sacrifice of her father, won’t stop the eventual unravelling of life in this late colonial African place.

White Material, Claire Denis


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