Very simply, Claire Denis is one of the dozen greatest living filmmakers in the world. When I was drawing up my personal list of the best movies of the decade, Denis was among the top contenders, but with so many films I couldn't decide which to pick. There was Beau Travail, which I eliminated simply because it officially counts as a 1999 film. There was the gorgeous, delicate Friday Night, and the baffling, transcendent The Intruder and the small, touching 35 Shots of Rum, and if you lived someplace where you could see it before December, the new White Material. (And, for braver souls than I, there was also the vicious, depressing 2001 "vampire" movie Trouble Every Day.)
Now, a few months too late for my list, I had the chance to view White Material at the San Francisco International Film Festival. At a glance, it's probably one of her most accessible movies. It has an actual plot, and a big star in the lead role, Isabelle Huppert, here looking bright and tough, her freckles and blue eyes glinting and gleaming in the heat. Even the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, is here, as well as cult actor Isaach De Bankolé (Casino Royale, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But it's also one of Denis' grimmest and most pessimistic films, although that doesn't stop me from wanting to see it again.
Denis was born in Paris, but was raised in colonial Africa. She studied in France and learned filmmaking under directors like Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. She made her debut feature, Chocolat (1988), about French colonialism in Africa, and returned there for her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail (which was based loosely on Herman Melville's Billy Budd). With White Material she returns a third time, but with a much angrier, darker agenda. Huppert stars as Maria Vial, a coffee grower on a big plantation. The French army flies over her land in a helicopter and informs her over a megaphone that they're pulling out; she'll be on her own, stuck in the middle of a war between the official African army and a band of African rebels, neither of which are very excited to have white people around.
But Maria still clings to a sense of entitlement. It's her land, and she's going to harvest the coffee crop. She has lived there for years, and she knows the locals. All she needs is five days. What could go wrong? Her husband, Andre (Lambert), believes differently and tries to make arrangements to get the family out of the country, meeting with a rebel leader and trying to sell the plantation. Meanwhile, all of Maria's workers leave and she stubbornly goes out to hire more. Things start to get tense, as the rebel army demands payment to use the road to and from town, and as subtle hints are sent, such as the head of a dead cow appearing in a basket of picked coffee beans.
Things get worse with Maria's grown son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a pathetic layabout who spends most of his days in bed. He won't even help his mother with her last-minute harvesting frenzy. Instead he goes swimming and nearly gets attacked by two angry kids, armed with knives and spears. He follows them, and they catch him and humiliate him by chopping off a lock of his blond hair and stealing his clothes. Later, he snaps, shaves his head, grabs a shotgun and sets out with a haphazard, pathological plan.
But perhaps worst of all is the appearance of a character called "The Boxer" (De Bankolé), who has become a kind of symbol in the ongoing battle. Gut-shot, he crawls into a hut on the coffee plantation to grimly wait, or perhaps to die. He draws yet more unwanted attention to the French plantation. Denis frames all this action in flashback, as Maria vainly attempts to get back home after a terrible incident in town. She hides in the tall grass from some soldiers, can't catch a ride, and winds up clinging from a ladder on the side of a bus; there are no more seats for her inside. The flashbacks provide a sense of inevitability to the proceedings, and they also loosen up what, for Denis, is a fairly straightforward narrative.
The ongoing question is: who lives here? Whose place is this? When some native kids find a gold lighter belonging to Andre, it winds up in the hands of a rebel soldier, who simply dismisses it as the "white material" of the title. Later, Maria's new hired workers ask about her connection to the plantation. She explains that she doesn't own it, but she's still in charge. "If nothing is yours, then it's all just hot air," one worker replies. But if Maria doesn't belong here, then Denis doesn't side with anyone else, either. She repeatedly shows a rebel-supporting radio DJ who plays reggae music and broadcasts messages to the rebels, but then later shows the military taking over the same station; neither broadcaster carries any more weight than the other.
The thing that sets Denis' films apart is their sense of texture. She incorporates the feel of a place and time into her films, and often these sensations can even overwhelm the plot. Here, Africa is hardscrabble, dusty and wearying. (Whereas in Beau Travail, it was more erotically and physically connected with the characters.) We can feel the earth's dire effect on a man's bare feet, and we can taste the dust when the helicopter dips close to where Maria is standing. The tall grass is half-dead, and the water in the pool where Manuel swims is cruddy and brackish. At some point, one rebel makes a comment about how the white woman's coffee isn't even good enough for the locals to drink.
All of these elements contribute to a certain feel and mood in the film; they give it a pure, physical, bodily quality. Denis never films in front of a place; she films inside it. In Friday Night, a chilly Paris night and a traffic jam set the tone, and a globetrotting trip between the snow and the tropics helped shape The Intruder, but in White Material, the land is the source for everything.