Lost In the Crevices – Brett’s Overlooked Film of the Week: “White Material” (2009)
Film is an inherently saturated medium. On a weekly basis, new movies arrive in theaters, DVD’s that you want to see but never find the time to get to fall by the wayside, all while good television programming taunts you with its new-found pockets of greatness (i.e. Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and now Orange is the New Black). Look, I get it. I pay $25 per month for a Netflix package I hardly benefit from. Last year, I kept a DVD for four months. That’s a $100 one time rental for a multimillion dollar company.
That being said, I have been–believe it or not–an avid watcher of films found off the beaten path ever since my love affair with the medium began. So, without further ado, here’s the first installment in a new SFN series called “Lost In the Crevices – My Overlooked Film of the Week” or, “movies you didn’t know existed but, luckily, I did.”
“White Material” (2009)
Claire Denis’ “White Material” is the stuff of enigmatic, puzzling and beautiful cinema. Using the kind of story prevalent in today’s global headlines as its narrative framework, the film meanders down a circuitous path of nightmarish nihilism, self-destruction and unchecked madness. Maria Vial—played brilliantly with reserved fierceness and physicality by Isabelle Huppert—is this unnamed African land’s Queen of the Nihilists. She equally embodies her character and the film, making it the most unique examinations of French colonialism to date.
Helmed by the best creative director working in contemporary French cinema today, “White Material” is auteur Claire Denis’ uncompromising visual poem about a woman consumed by the madness of the land that surrounds her. This land is an unnamed country that could represent any number of current war-torn, violence-ridden African territories. It is on the brink of revolution. The country is a French satellite, too, but the looming threat of a violent uprising has forced the French to relinquish their stronghold.
Maria and her family run a coffee plantation amidst the chaos, and she remains irrationally steadfast in her determination to maintain its productivity. What she fails to see, or, for that matter, acknowledge, is the immediate danger that surrounds her decision. This decision becomes Maria’s plight, but we’re never quite sure if she’s even aware of it. She’s consumed with her work, blinded by ambition, driven by fear, cares for nothing and disregards the emotional and physical dangers associated with her carelessness—the fragile, fierce, immovable nihilistic queen of Café Vial.
Denis–since her 1999 effort “Beau Travail”–has placed the majority of her narratives under the microscope of unflinchingly detailed character studies. Her characters are cinematic extensions of the human condition; they grapple with uncontrollable forces of nature but try to deal with them the best way they know how and, for that, they are all testaments to the imperfections inherent in “getting by the best way one knows how,” kind of like, say, you and I.
In “35 Shots of Rum”–Denis’ film of the same year–her central characters cope with impending loss, devotion, love and family bonds. “White Material” nearly opposite in tone, devotes equal examination to a woman blind, yet still devoted to survival through her own form of coping: detachment from reality.
The brilliance of “White Material” lies in Denis’ ability to guide us through the films’ occurrences. Like many of her French contemporaries, she harnesses an uncanny visual language that’s astounding to watch. Throughout the duration of the movie, she allows her images to stand on their own and speak for themselves. Denis often frames her shots with minimalism found in everyday objects; and some of the most defining shots come from the way the wind blows Maria Vial’s sun dress around her knees, or from the larger-than-life mural of The Boxer on a building wall. Surprisingly, a musical score is absent during the meatier chunks of the film, except for the opening sequence when it sets the stage for the curious, eerie tone of the film’s entirety.
For avid movie watchers, “White Material” is a gem more than worthy of addition to your Netflix queue (or your permanent DVD collection). For casual movie watchers, this could be the risk you take that unexpectedly expands your horizons.