By Armond White
Claire Denis’ African fetish goes wild in White Material, an artsy depiction of a white family (Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert and Nicolas Duvauchelle) who try holding on to their coffee plantation, and colonialist pride, in an unnamed African country when the black natives begin a murderous political revolt.
As Madame Vial, Huppert wanders through the turmoil like a wraith—pale, freckled, hair flowing through dust and smoke, yet still a bit haughty—Queen of the Nihilists. She’s determined to hold on to her land and business despite the inevitable revolution because—crazily—it’s her last stand, having given up the European life for the adventure and danger of the Dark Continent. But Denis finds darkness in her heroine’s psychological state. That’s what distinguishes White Material as different from imperialist romances like Hollywood’s 1955 Untamed, starring Susan Hayward, or Out of Africa with Meryl Streep. Madame Vial is a post-colonial Joseph Conrad character redefined through Denis’ embrace of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial criticism. She represents European decadence, the flipside of Denis’ typical fetish, which is her fascination with decline.
White Material is titled after the rebels’ tag for the European interloper—reducing them to a non-human element. (“These whites, they scorn us.”) Denis employs a chic masochism that turns this vague story of an uprising into a color-coded fantasy (beige and yellow predominate). A distant view of mountain ridges resembles the form of a nude woman reclining, as if waiting to be ravished. Madame Vial embodies an indolent empire (an idea better explicated when Huppert played Patrice Chereau’s Gabrielle). In a kinky form of reverse ethnic cleansing, Denis slowly details the Vial family’s disintegration: the matriarch’s folly, the husband’s ineffectual panic and the son Manuel’s jungle fever. After he is violated by a couple of child-soldiers, he goes native; he shaves his head and raids the family stockpile, hastening his own death and encouraging the rebels’ self-destruction.
Denis photographs African physiognomy more ardently than any other European director. These faces are not inscrutable—in fact, they’re handsome and quite transparent. They’re the return of the repressed: Beautiful kids carrying spears and machete recall the eroticized boys who pop up throughout Gael Morel’s Apres Lui and the gun-toting ragamuffins in Hype Williams’ Belly. Their impulses are clearly vengeful. Even a lecherous adult verbally assaults Madame Vial: “Extreme blondness brings bad luck. It cries out to be pillaged. Blue eyes are troublesome.”
Post-colonial thinkers like Fanon and Aimé Césaire spoke to the liberation of the Third World, but Denis (collaborating with novelist Marie N’Diaye) drifts into cynical, apolitical reverie. Her muse Isaach De Bankolé, who played the gorgeous young native boy in 1989’s Chocolat, appears here as a tired, wounded counterinsurgent known as “The Boxer.” He’s a new kind of fetish object, suggesting a background of European experience, and now De Bankolé’s nobility resembles a death mask’s. Denis’ elliptical narrative avoids politics. This siege tale ignores the details of colonial life to gloss its chaotic collapse. Her equanimity is tiresome. Instead of scrutinizing conflicting political behaviors in occupied territories—as John Ford classically did in Fort Apache—Denis substitutes the complexity of ethics and duty with Madame Vial’s and the marauding militias’ fetishized madness. A sequence involving mass-suicide followed by bloody mutilations lets Denis indulge her horror-movie kick as she did in Trouble Every Day. No wonder the smart-about-movies crowd who routinely ignore excellent films about the black diaspora experience have heaped praise on White Material. By reducing third-world tragedy to a fashion show of nihilism, it’s Halloween at the art house.
Directed by Claire Denis
At the IFC Center
Runtime: 102 min.
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