Nov 22, 2010

White Material

Here's David Denby on White Material, the reason that I was afraid to see this movie: 
Dreadful, in an aimless, intentionally disjointed way that some people have mistaken for art. We’re in an unnamed African country at some unnamed time during a meaningless civil war between “rebels” and “militia,” and the members of a white family living on a worthless coffee plantation can’t pull themselves together enough to leave or even to have a coherent conversation. The shots are slung together with purposeful discontinuity even when continuity is absolutely called for if a given sequence is to make any sense. There are striking images, but the director, Claire Denis, leaves them isolated from one another; the movie offers mere postcards of despair. Isabelle Huppert stars as the plantation manager, a woman who refuses to acknowledge literally dozens of signs that death—hers and her family’s—is imminent. The movie is an attack on white postcolonial arrogance and stupidity, but none of the African characters are more than a handsome face.
I should have been more afraid of David Denby. What's up with his contempt for this film? I agree with him that this movie would have benefited from more internal coherence between the characters, but White Material is by no means a sloppy or meaningless movie. I thought it was a rather fascinating exploration of colonialism through a very personal lens. Denis' chooses to depict the escalating danger of a country in civil war, not by connecting the dots and spelling everything out for the audience, but by directly immersing us in the point of view of her coffee grower protagonist, Maria Vial, a stubborn Isabelle Huppert, who, as one of her workers says, doesn't want to be separated from what she owns. There is more than that. Yes, living in an exotic land with indentured servants may make some people slothful and it may distort their sense of place in society, but she is single-minded and hardworking in her desire to yield just one more crop of coffee, to stay in the place that gives challenge and purpose to her life. This is where her son was born, and where she feels she belongs. After all, she seems to be the only white person in the movie who actually breaks a sweat working. She is in total denial and even blasé about the danger of a country in insurrection, and one that predictably looks for scapegoats in the white colonialists, justifiably and not. To her, the current chaos is like been there, done that, this too shall pass.  
Meanwihle Denis shows the resentment of the Africans towards white people with a totally authentic mix of deference and distance, cooperation and contempt, and utter distrust. It did not bother me that Denis does not explain what specific African country it is. It seems to be a combo of all civil wars that ravage Africa, with child armies, and bands of rebels and government militias almost indistinguishable from one another. This is still, after all, the view from outside. The end result, however, is very concrete mayhem that is depicted in a very palpable way. There is nothing more terrifying than young children bearing real guns and machetes. And Denis fixes the camera on their chaotic, brutal, fearsome yet disturbingly beautiful anarchy. She does not make easy anti-colonialist pronouncements. She just shows the consequences. It is a complex situation of dysfunction, codependency and unfairness, of both plundering and progress, between the colonialists and the colonized that finally coalesces in the sheer evil that allows children to be dehumanized to such a degree. I welcome a movie that shows the entanglement and the deep intertwining of cross-purposes, rather than insultingly simplistic dreck like Invictus.
I disagree with Denby that the African characters are merely handsome ciphers. The mayor of the village, who lives in relative ostentation, has a definite character and a clear purpose in the film. There are workers and servants and people with different degrees of empathy towards Maria, but they are subservient because that is what they are in her world. The least worked out of the characters is a mysterious rebel leader called The Boxer, played by Isaach de Bankolé. Is he good or evil, we don't know. He seems to be a hero to the people, but then some of those people are 9 year-olds with spears and machetes. He hides at the plantation, nursing a bullet wound that should have killed him after days of ignoring it. Huppert lets him stay, stubbornly oblivious that this gesture may be considered a dangerous provocation. For her, who later learns who he really is, he is the nephew of one of her workers and thus, he can stay. Her dealings with the locals are matriarchal and guided by human relationships. A stern and demanding, but not evidently cruel mother, she knows who is whose son, cousin or daughter. These poor people have no choice but to need her salary, but they resent her mothering, which they did not invite. Arrogantly, patronizingly, she pays no mind to factions or politics and she pays an awful price for that. Instead of the classic paternalist, evil plantation owner, we get a woman surrounded by ineffectual men. A  father in law that is now sick and unable to help, an ex-husband who has a son by one of the servants and when the going gets tough, sensibly, if flakily, wants out, and a monster of a way past teenage son, she dotes on like a helpless child and who, for unexplained reasons, becomes the symbol of white people at their worst in Africa. He doesn't go about raping and pillaging. He just stays in bed all day, unwilling to help and nursing a sick mind. I thought it was interesting that his mother was at once  disappointed in him and still overly protective. Her enormous blind spot regarding him sheds light on her enormous blind spot about the country she lives in and her place in it. She chooses to be an innocent, and suffers the consequences. Yes, sometimes the characters do things that don't make much sense and there could have been more than a tenuous connection between her character and the relatives that live in the house. But I really liked the impressionistic point of view. It takes the safe distance away from the viewer, and makes it a much more visceral experience.

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