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The New York Times & Village Voice Rave for WHITE MATERIAL!

Posted on Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 by IFC Films News

Tags: Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Reviews, WHITE MATERIAL

Hanging on for a Dear Way of Life

Early in Claire Denis’s powerful, agonized film “White Material,” you see a woman in a short pink dress, Maria — played by a sublime Isabelle Huppert — hanging off the back of a bus. The setting is a contemporary unnamed African country being torn to pieces by government troops, marauding rebels and the enduring ravages of European colonialism. As she holds on tight, her short-sleeved dress fluttering, the camera moves in close enough for you to see the muscles in Ms. Huppert’s thin arms popping, straining with the terrific effort that encapsulates the will to survive.

Ms. Denis has an extraordinary gift for finding the perfect image that expresses her ideas, the cinematic equivalent of what Flaubert called le mot juste. At her best, as in “Beau Travail” (1999), her radiant retelling of Melville’s “Billy Budd,” the images convey her ideas with more precision than reams of scripted dialogue could. The same holds true of “White Material,” a striking film filled with images that sometimes reveal their full meaning only when their beauty curdles in the chain of signification, as in the seemingly inconsequential shot of Maria’s light hair that inexorably leads to a scene of a man shaving his head and violently stuffing his blond hair into the mouth of a protesting black woman.
But before that horror there is the nightmarish image of running dogs and the unnerving scene of a man caught in an inferno, an opening vision to which the film later returns. When Maria first enters the film, she’s walking in a dusty rural landscape and vainly trying to wave down a fast-moving car. The expression on her face is both terrifying and terrified, and her features look harshly arranged — lips pursed into a lopsided oval, brow bunched, red-lined eyes fixed — as if she had been broken by some unspoken anguish and hastily glued together. Soon after, she hitches a ride on the bus and begins her journey toward the coffee plantation she calls home, a passage Ms. Denis interweaves with flashbacks to the recent past.

It takes a little time to adjust to this dual movement forward (toward home) and back (into the past), if only because it makes it tricky to get a firm footing in the story. Yet this form works because Maria initially appears as unmoored by what is happening as you are. In this sense, the flashbacks, most of which are from her point of view, serve as fragments of a puzzle that you slowly piece together, at least in part. You discover her fierce dedication to the plantation, and you become acquainted with her former husband, André (Christophe Lambert); her adored grown son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle); and the plantation patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor). In time, both you and Maria learn the costs of her ferocious loves.

The price proves lethally high. In some crucial respects, “White Material” is a specific film about white Europeans who, being fully integrated into their African home, insist on the privileges of patrimony, including the right to exploit the land and its people. Though pale as milk, Maria contemptuously refers to “dirty whites,” and her son, now perhaps in his early 20s, was born in Africa. Yet while he is a native son, the country “doesn’t like him,” as an African man tells Maria, and neither does it like her. If she doesn’t seem to grasp this, it’s because she seems to think that her deep, rapturous feeling for the country on which she’s staked a claim is enough to inoculate her. She isn’t a dirty white, though for some she is.

“White Material” is very much a companion piece to “Chocolat,” Ms. Denis’s 1988 directorial debut. That lush, more straightforward film is set in Cameroon in the 1950s, during the waning years of French colonial rule, a subject Ms. Denis, the daughter of a French official, knows intimately, having grown up in Francophone African countries. “Chocolat” centers on the relationship between the young white daughter of a French district officer and the African man, Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), who works as the family’s house “boy.” Ms. Denis doesn’t pretend to speak for the African servant, who remains opaque, but she does insist on showing his point of view — we watch him watching the whites — because she knows that this story isn’t hers alone.

Mr. De Bankolé has a small role in the new film as a wounded, romanticized rebel soldier called the Boxer who takes refuge at the coffee plantation. Maria offers him help, but she barely talks to him, so preoccupied is she with getting her crop of beans harvested. Most of the plantation’s workers have understandably fled (and Maria’s ex wants to do the same), and both the army and the rebels, including a ragtag band of child soldiers, are fast approaching from different angles. The utopian promise of African liberation that reverberated throughout “Chocolat” has been replaced by the devastations of postcolonialism. Power has partly moved from white hands to black, yet much remains the same, including terror.

For the most part, terror creeps through this film quietly, sneaking through tall grass, slipping into buildings and moving with increasing tension among the characters. Eventually, Ms. Denis brings the whole thing to a shocking end with a death blow that is as blunt in its execution as it is in its larger historical meaning. But before then, she shows you an image of such astonishing poignancy and moral clarity that it will haunt you long after the film ends: a handful of child soldiers sleeping in a rumpled bed among scattered stuffed animals. With grave tenderness, Ms. Denis reminds us that these murderous, tragically lost boys and girls are still children, a gesture that doesn’t restore their humanity — which she has no right to restore — so much as remind you of the humanity that’s so easily forgotten.

But before that horror there is the nightmarish image of running dogs and the unnerving scene of a man caught in an inferno, an opening vision to which the film later returns. When Maria first enters the film, she’s walking in a dusty rural landscape and vainly trying to wave down a fast-moving car. The expression on her face is both terrifying and terrified, and her features look harshly arranged — lips pursed into a lopsided oval, brow bunched, red-lined eyes fixed — as if she had been broken by some unspoken anguish and hastily glued together. Soon after, she hitches a ride on the bus and begins her journey toward the coffee plantation she calls home, a passage Ms. Denis interweaves with flashbacks to the recent past.

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White Material and The Cry of Jazz: Races Clash, Revolutions Ignite

Claire Denis’s strongest movie in the decade since Beau Travail, her tense, convulsive White Material is a portrait of change and a thing of terrible beauty. The time is unspecified. The subject is the collapse of an unnamed West African state, and the protagonist, Maria, a French settler unflinchingly played by Isabelle Huppert, is the proprietress of a family-run coffee plantation.

White Material, which had its local premiere in the 2009 New York Film Festival, is impressionistic yet tactile—Denis presents an unclear situation with gorgeous immediacy. It’s as if, working with new DP Yves Cape, she has rediscovered film as film (as opposed to the more conventional narratives of 35 Shots of Rum, The Intruder, and Friday Night). White Material, which was shot in Cameroon, has an urgent lyricism predicated on fluid jump cuts, jittery camera moves, and extreme close-ups. This composition in continuous crisis and continual dread, written with Prix Goncourt–winning novelist Marie N’Diaye, is at once pre- and post-apocalyptic.

The first movement is boldly a-chron-ological. Denis begins at the end, with Maria’s plantation in flames and a revolutionary hero known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) an already cold corpse. Flashbacks are indistinguishable from flash-forwards as, traversing an enigmatic shifting terrain, Maria simultaneously flees from and returns (or re-returns) to the place she calls home. Rogue soldiers rule the roads; helicopters dispatched by evacuating French forces drop useless “survival kits.” The dying Boxer scrambles through the bush to find refuge on a doomed plantation; meanwhile, his activities are the subject of menacing radio transmissions issued by a mysterious DJ who also promises that “for [European] white material the party is over.” An abandoned church is filled with fly-covered corpses. Armed child soldiers creep down from the hills to explore Maria’s house while she vainly begs her workers to remain for the coffee harvest.

Astonishingly self-contained and remarkably girlish, Huppert anchors the movie. Maria is impossibly stubborn, apparently tireless, and totally fearless. She is resourceful enough to run a plantation (and even bring in the harvest) by herself and yet can’t face the reality of her situation. Alone in her incongruous pink calico frock, absolute in her rejection of France, she’s protected by her craziness . . . but only up to a point. Her ex-husband, André (Christophe Lambert), negotiates behind her back to sell the plantation. Her father-in-law (Michel Subor) is an invalid. Her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is an indulged, indolent princeling who sleeps through half the movie before waking up in a mad martial trance, like the surfer-soldier in Apocalypse Now—a movie that, in its imperial hubris and hallucinatory jungle madness, seems to haunt White Material. There are intimations of Jonestown as well—Denis’s verdant death-trip is rendered additionally lysergic by a spacey Tindersticks score.

To a degree, White Material is founded on a familiarity with the otherness of others, as well as a recognition of one’s own otherness. (Denis was raised in French-colonial Africa and has set several previous movies there; N’Diaye, the daughter of a French mother and Senegalese father, grew up in France.) But the movie’s refusal to tether its action to a particular time or place gives White Materiala disturbing, ahistorical universality. It’s as if Denis were reimagining Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a chaotic, postcolonial race war in which the river reverses course: The continent’s lush, fecund savagery floods “civilization” to reclaim its own, including, in the end, Maria’s mind.

The sense of final days becomes that of final moments, with a particular way of life inexorably sloshing down the drain. As the movie’s protagonist is the only European woman we see, race is continuously apparent—she is a foreign body being expelled by her host in a bloody purge, just a bit of “white material” borne off in the raging current of history.

Race, history, and aesthetics are intertwined to discomfiting effect in Edward Bland’s 1959 manifesto The Cry of Jazz, newly restored by and screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives. Scarcely less abrasive now than when it first appeared, the 34-minute movie has a strong educational component; its dramatization of the passionate argument between black and white members of a Chicago “jazz appreciation club” is as provocatively stilted and crudely didactic as anything in Brecht (or Oscar Micheaux).

The Cry of Jazz is couched as a debate triggered when one of the whites carelessly equates jazz with rock ’n’ roll. A black musician named Alex proceeds to set him straight, then goes further to maintain that “the Negro alone created jazz.” The incredulous, hopelessly square ofays are incapable of understanding this essentialist position; they can’t comprehend what Alex means by “the hazard of being Negro” in America nor why he sees jazz as the triumph of the African-American spirit. His characterization of improvisation as “the joyous celebration of the present” in the face of a “futureless future” likewise whizzes over their heads.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack features extended passages of Sun Ra’s ensemble making joyfully raucous noise over shots of impoverished ghetto streets and roach-infested slum apartments. (In the movie’s funniest joke, an example of blandly swinging “white” jazz is juxtaposed with a woman grooming her poodle.) The argument only grows fiercer once Alex and another black intellectual maintain that “the Negro is the only human American.” No longer dismissive, the whites are now outraged, wondering what all this has to do with jazz. “Everyone is equal!” they shout, only to be informed that “you’re not our equals in suffering.” (Responding to complaints that The Cry of Jazzwas an anti-white film, Voice critic Jonas Mekas wrote, “It’s about time somebody made one.”)

The Cry of Jazz first appeared alongside quasi-Beat productions like Shadows and Pull My Daisy (with which it’s showing at Anthology), and was filmed shortly before the five-part 1959 TV documentary The Hate That Hate Produced introduced white America to the Nation of Islam. Unacquainted with Beat poetry, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Elijah Muhammad, or any expression of black cultural nationalism, Bland’s white jazz buffs are getting a taste of the ’60s, four years before the poet LeRoi Jones (not yet Amiri Baraka) shocked Down Beat readers with an essay arguing that “Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made.”

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