Loose and anomalous, often described as a cinema filled with palpable delights and sensual motion, Claire Denis’ films tend to drift in and around classical ideas of narrative instead of interlocking and engaging with them. What makes White Material, the director’s latest film, so special is that at times it moves, and even feels, like a film far and away from Denis’ repertoire, more dynamic and immediate filmmaking bordering on a genre piece. But the film refuses to provide easy answers in the way of psychological platitudes or moral judgments. It’s still, as Denis told Jonathan Romney in a 2000 interview, “trying to float on the impression of what a story could be.” That impression is light touch with a deep imprint, a confident authorial voice that’s sure of itself within every frame.
White Material tells the story of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the emotional head of a family of coffee planters on the boundaries of a crumbling colonialism. Civil war is moving increasingly closer to invading their small little slice of happiness, and all the workers are quickly packing up and heading out, despite the pleas of their wealthy white employers. With both her lazy, mentally unstable son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) offering no help and her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) ready to cut ties and return to France, Maria carries all the burden on her back, trying to keep some facet of her life intact, even if it means blindly rejecting the tension and violence that is building up and closing in around her.
To Maria, there is no other choice. Huppert imbues the character with a rigid sterility that’s neither warm nor cold, but somewhere in between. She moves most freely when interacting with the landscape, whether it’s swaying through the tall grass, her auburn hair and muted dresses blending with the elements, or riding her motorbike down the long dirt road leading toward the family plantation, letting go of the handlebars to become one with the breeze. As the film progresses, the barrenness of her face gives way to small fissures and cracks. The performance mirrors the narrative: as Maria’s freedom slips away, so does her stern embodiment of it.
Throughout the film, the slowly building group of young rebels traverse the land causing havoc. They are not innocent, but Denis, clearly not one to demonize, uses them as navigators of the story and situation. Their violence is always childlike, closer to goofing around than mean-spirited, and their trajectory echoes all the way to the shocking closing. Everyone is implicated. The flood gates open, freedom has slipped through the cracks; violence is answered with violence, everything inside is released.
Moving throughout the film is also a character named The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole), a revolutionary hero wanted by the local authorities. He represents hope for the young rebels, his name a slogan spraypainted on walls, but he never emerges as anything other than shadow lurking in the darkness. He appears as if his role will be much larger in what comes ahead, but he quickly trails off into the distance, to be seen a few more times and hardly mentioned. The gravity of his presence, we sense sparingly, is immense, though it is never felt.
With a striking blow that brings White Material to an end, ideas that have been simmering are brought to their boiling point: colonialism and its discontents, nostalgie de la boue, and the modern anxieties of freedom. What happens after, and what makes Denis a filmmaker of continued interest, is that these ideas don’t explode; they slowly vaporize and are left to hang in the air, blowing in the wind.