As a modern-day African country descends into chaos, a French woman, seemingly impervious to impending danger, fights to keep her family's aging coffee plantation intact. Claire Denis' drama White Material recounts, in nonlinear fashion, the multiple and overlapping disintegrations of self, family, workplace, community and civil order.
Maria (Isabelle Huppert) is the central figure, connecting her ex-husband; nearby civilization; plantation workers; dissolute adult son; and even a rebel leader. She is strong and resourceful, but only in a way of life that is literally crumbling around her. Her myopia will become her trap, and then her madness.
The title refers to European colonialism and its aftermath, but also to literal objects, items of Western origin. Many are symbolic but these objects also serve as markers in the disjointed timeline.
The film works best as a foreboding, semi-hallucinatory experience: Its fragmented style conveys a sense of vicarious chaos, as do its contradictory images that flicker between beauty and ugliness, comfort and danger.
But as a narrative, one that is ambitious and composed of many moving pieces and histories, the film is a frequently frustrating jumble of jigsaw pieces. I found myself drawn more to scenes where nothing happened -- such as Maria's tense bus ride, or the awkward coffee harvest -- rather than the dramatic plot twists which often unfolded rapidly (and out of order).
White Material is affecting if not quite satisfying, and largely anchored by Huppert's intense performance. Its themes felt familiar -- from Joseph Conrad through myriad post-colonial dramas -- and setting this overheated tale in an unnamed African country with no larger context makes it feel rather old-fashioned, another rework the "savage continent" myth. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Feb. 18. Oaks