Claire Denis makes movies that almost seem commissioned by The Criterion Collection. The French filmmaker shoots in long, beautiful, quiet takes that allow the viewer to learn by seeing. And yet while taking place within often violent settings, her films are ultimately about the characters and how they interact with each other. They would be classified as “Art Films” under most definitions of the term and yet they have a heart that the term just doesn’t convey. Her latest film White Material (2009) has recently received the Blu-ray treatment from The Criterion Collection.
I first encountered the work of Denis in her debut feature, Chocolat (1988). It’s set in the post-Colonial days in Cameroon. Drawn largely from her youth in Africa, the movie never gets bogged down in terms of either race or Colonialism. It would have been easy for a lazier director to let the great political movements push the drama in the film but that never happens. It’s a stirring debut and worthy of further study. My second encounter was with the 1999 film Beau Travail. I was attracted to it initially because of it being a loose adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd. Once again, the film finds its voice in great cinematography. The film is also set in Africa and the setting provides a great backdrop for a very dramatic storyline.
White Material is set in an unnamed French colony in Africa. It’s also set in a non-specific year. The initial scenes set the tone of the country. It is quickly falling into a state of chaos – the few remaining whites, including Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) have been warned to leave. This state of flux is reflected in all aspects of the film. The are great movements happening – not just politically – but we feel we are witnessing the end of European colonialism. We might also be witness to the end of Maria’s life. The workers are abandoning Maria’s coffee plantation out of fear for their own lives. The chaos is exasperating as the camera is always moving. It might be handheld in one scene or on a dolly or on a bus with Maria, but the viewer is always on the move too. These scenes make any static shot of the countryside and landscape of the farm seem even more idyllic. And yet they aren’t – the land is a casualty of the chaos – fields are burnt, trees cut down and the land is generally unattended and overgrown in other spots.
The first words we hear are what would be a terrible spoiler in a mainstream film on the subject – “The Boxer! He’s dead all right.” But this is a director that knows that this film is about more than the death of a Rebel leader. From this point, we will flash backwards and forwards and mostly with very few clues. But knowing of his death lets the viewer concentrate on other dramatic storylines – we know how his life will end and can only watch as Maria becomes involved with him. It’s this inevitable tragedy that adds to the films desperation.
Everywhere there is despair. Maria is trying to hold on to a plantation that has been in the family for generations while her husband (played by a familiar face, Christopher Lambert) is trying to sell it to protect her. Her son, Manuel, is tortured by child rebels and in his despair loses his mind. The old country is dying a painful, violent death and Claire Denis does not have the answer for what will take its place. In fact, the inference is that the child soldiers, who are more out of control than any of the rebels, have the power over their future in their hands.
The previous films used the characters to portray the feelings of freedom and liberation as the French Colonialism came to an end. But this film looks at what happens after that. It’s got even more power based on events that have happened in Africa over the past few months. It is the child that reacts simply – with rage at being repressed and now has to shape what happens when the country is theirs. When they have turned Maria and her family into something less than human – just “white material” – no more important than any other resource in the country. Easily disposed and forgotten.
Isabelle Huppert is our anchor in the swirling chaos of this film. She is trying to keep together herself, her plantation, her family, and with her care of The Boxer and her workers, she’s also trying to hold together the inevitable collapse of her country. She’s a thin woman who gets lost in the dresses she wears but her focus in ferocious. I know we don’t get to see nearly enough of her in this country. I’m familiar with her work in Heaven’s Gate, I Heart Huckabees and her tour de force role in The Piano Teacher. As everything in the film spirals towards darkness – she is the strength that keeps us moving.
The Criterion Collection is light on extras. For such a contemporary film, I find that to be suitable. Commentaries and features are best left to the decade or two following the films release when the impact can really be fairly assessed. This disc’s sound pallette is superb – the fully digital soundtrack (mastered at 24-bit) captures Denis’ spare use of music perfectly. So often, it’s only the chirps of grasshoppers or the flight of birds that dominate the scene while we wait for the rare exchanges of dialog. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is used perfectly – with action happening across the screen – the moving camera often seeming to have trouble keeping the action in frame. There are rare closeups – so that wide screen will often have a character in the foreground center with acres of background scenery for the eye to take in.
There’s a selection of interviews, a short documentary on the film’s premiere at a film festival in Cameroon, a rather uneventful deleted scene, the trailer, and a short essay booklet. Not a deluxe package, but like I said, the film isn’t in need of that just yet. The film starts with tension and maintains it through the film. This isn’t a simple – “let’s see what happens to the heroine and the Rebel leader” type of film. This isn’t a mis-matched love story. In fact, the abscence of love is what really hits you. There isn’t any in the film – not between Maria and her son, her husband or even with The Boxer. This is a film about despair and collapse. And that’s a perfect subject for a film. And it’s just the type of challenge that one hopes to experience when sitting down with a Criterion Collection film.