Some might say that all Cohen brothers movies are strange in their way, but A Serious Man was strange in a very atypical way for Joel and Ethan Cohen. Having never addressed Judaism or general issues of Jewish culture in America, it was as if everything they felt, whatever baggage might have been lurking about their Jewishness came tumbling out of their screenplay for the film, all of which concluded with that final shot of the approaching funnel cloud, one both unsettling and seemingly out of place in their body of work.
White Material takes place in an unnamed African country. The film was shot in Cameroon, the setting for Denis' first film, Chocolat, as well one of the countries in which she lived as a child while her father's job as a French civil servant took their family to several countries on the continent. In interviews, Denis has stated that her return to Africa was almost incidental. She and star Isabelle Huppert had agreed to work together. Huppert suggested that Denis adapt Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing. Much as the Lessing novel apparently informed, as least in spirit, Chocolat, Denis wanted to write a different story.
White material was apparently first a term that had to do the undercover selling of ivory. It came to mean the things that belong to white people or the people themselves, white trash. During a rare bit of voiceover, the film's single-minded protagonist, Marie Vial (Isabelle Huppert), mutters about white trash, whom she obviously distinguishes from herself. But Denis' intended fairly abstract story about what it is to be white material in a society where most everyone is not white, ultimately becomes something very different, something not so abstract, something violent and self-lacerating. As Denis has said, "Colonialism exists. It’s not something I bring. It’s there, it exists, a part of history. It left traces and scars, you know? I don’t need to think about it. It’s there." It also teems through this story and comes tumbling out, whether she and co-writer Marie N'Diaye intended it or not.
The collaboration of Claire Denis and Isabelle Huppert is one that seems long-overdue. In Huppert, Denis has perhaps the perfect actress to embody the contradictions of her script. Huppert has played women driven (whether internally or from extermal forces) to extremes more often and more convincingly than just about anyone working in film over the past 30 years. The 57-year-old actresss cuts an almost girlish figure as as she runs around in prim dresses or rides motorbikes in White Material. But when the camera is able to focus on the eyes, when the restless body stops moving and the tendrils of red hair are pushed back or separated to offer a glimpse, we see eyes that are ringed in red from lack of sleep, worry...eyes that betray the crossing of an admirable tenacity into a kind of madness. Ms. Huppert is magnetic as ever.
The flashbacks occur as Maria rides a packed mini-bus. As the film begins, she's walking down a road, trying to catch a ride, ignoring the French military helicopter that swoops overhead, warning her to evacuate with her family. The bus driver first tells here there is no room, but she's invited to the roof by one of the passengers riding on top of the bus. Instead, she takes a place on the metal ladder at the back of the vehicle, triceps muscles tensed as she clings to posts and rungs of the ladder, the gesture a perfect symbol for Maria's life and personality. We find out in the flashbacks that Maria runs her family's coffee plantation, a vocation that has become increasingly difficult and dangerous as the region degenerates into civil war. Even as most of her workers flee and there are signs of danger everywhere, she persists.
While Maria roams around in those first scenes, so too does Le Boxeur (the ever-striking Issach de Bankole, who figured prominently in Denis' 1988 Chocolat) a rebel figure of somewhat legendary status, his age and world weariness a stark contrast to the child soldiers who seem to form most of the ranks opposing government forces.
Denis' stories are usually not told so much as revealed, the temporal back and forth like a brass rubbing (though being very much a French woman who's a master of images, perhaps frottage would be a better analog): eventually the picture is revealed, or at least telling outlines therof. She usually leaves a lot up to the intelligence of an audience, an admirable tendency. But I'm not sure Denis has given us enough to work with here.
While tenaciously trying to keep the Vial coffee plantation in business, the state of her son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is just one of the things to which Maria has been blind. He's been going to seed, rotting, like the very European presence in the African country. Manuel's indolence and stunted humanity are credible enough. But when he's robbed and stripped by two young Africans, soldiers of a sad, modern sort, Manuel snaps in a manner that's a bit too cinematic.
It's easy to imagine an emasculated young man turning to violence after such a trauma, particularly in an increasingly-menacing environment. But his Taxi Driver moment, as he regards himself in a mirror before shaving his head, is the point at which the story stops adhering to any logical arc, however elliptically it had been presented to that point. Ever the verbal minimalist, Denis script offers no words here, no update of "Are you talkin' to me? Instead of Travis Bickle's mohawk, Manuel shaves his head entirely. On the way out of the house with a rifle slung over his bare back, he stuffs his blond hair into the mouth of Lucie, one of the family's African staff. With his bald head and manifest insanity, Manuel is now reminiscent of Brando's Kurtz (particularly when taken with his ill, more rotund granfather, Henri (Michel Subor), the patriarch of the family presence in the country; the two are a kind of Brando composite) from Apocalypse Now. That film and Conrad's Heart of Darkness on which it is based, lurk throughout the film with obvious parallels to a poisonous colonial presence leading to a society run amok.
One would expect a young man in Manuel's position to try to exact revenge on the Africans who embarassed him, or perhaps upon the first Africans he finds. Instead, he finds a ragtag group of young rebels - the same group who had hijacked his mother's Toyota truck and killed one of her hired hands, along with many others - and leads them back to the Vial plantation where he helps them loot the storehouse and gives them license to have their way with the house. All of this before government troops show up and dispatch the rebels, showing no sympathy for the age and size of their enemies. Among the early images we see in White Material are Manuel stumbling around in one of the plantations buildings while it burns, as those armed troops stand guard outside the structure, smoke pouring out of the roof. It's never clear if Manuel was forced inside by the troops or he's burning the buildings down himself.
Even more strange and contrived is White Material's violent climax, when Maria finally makes it back to the plantation, what she sees and what transpires between her and her father-in-law. Despite the palpable sense of doom that has prevailed to this point, it's still a stunning turn of events. The film's final shot is of one of the young rebels who has survived, while Le Boxeur and so many of his young cohorts have met bloody ends. Denis has said that this is a bit of hope, but there's nothing hopeful in the weary young man's face. It seems an awkward attempt to return the story to one of the African characters, when so much of what has happened is about the white material, the people and their objects.
Despite Denis' insistence that this is not a film about colonialism or post-colonialism, all that seems left in the end is allegory. All the violence seems the baggage of colonialism, everywhere are its ghosts. But in a film that derives a fair amount of its pathos from the plight of Africans in its unnamed country, it's worth asking: Whose baggage? Whose ghosts?