I saw this film when it first came out, and have now viewed it for a second time. There is an atmosphere of menace in this picture that is immediately recognizable, that becomes increasingly palpable as the film progresses. As the picture gains momentum, the characters surrounding the defiantly determined Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), begin to play out their personal vendettas and the dominoes start to fall. There are creepy scenes with child soldiers stealthily entering the dwellings of the plantation compound, taking jewelry, clothes and whatever else they find to be of value. Everyone is under surveillance, hiding in plain sight, fearing for their lives; the African soldiers are killing not just the whites, but also their own people as anarchy descends.
Isabelle Huppert, as Maria, gives an understated performance; in an interview featured on the supplemental material of this DVD, she explains that Maria does not show any emotion. Maria is described, on the back cover of the DVD, as being "ferocious" and a "crazed character". But after watching Huppert's performance, neither of those descriptions seem appropriate. Maria is tenacious yet impassive; it's as if the high stakes of Maria's situation demand stoicism. It is not until near the end of the film, when her world has collapsed, that we see any evidence of her being crazed or ferocious. Huppert's performance is one of quiet desperation, of internal crumbling, of someone refusing to recognize the harsh reality confronting her. Huppert is a chameleon who blends into the ambiance of any picture she appears in; she achieves this in "White Material" as well.
Christophe Lambert also gives a strong and understated performance as André, Maria's husband, who is afraid and urgently suggests to Maria that they escape the plantation; and yet he is also trapped. The frightening breakdown of Manuel, Maria's spoiled brat son (portrayed by Nicolas Duvauchelle) is another crucial aspect of the film; hs is the primary underminer, who through his destructive actions, initiates and increases the momentum of the downward spiral of the plantation. In the final twenty minutes of the film, Maria puts on a pink dress, which functions as a metaphor for her fragility. The score by Tindersticks, composed specifically for this picture, provides a moody, alternative counterpoint that underlines the atmosphere of desolation. Highlights of the supplemental material of this DVD include interviews with Claire Denis, who I found to be compelling in person; and with Isabelle Huppert (that I already mentioned), in which she discusses her character Maria.
I have not seen any other pictures by Claire Denis, and so I cannot compare this film to her other work. After seeing "White Material", I would classify her as a documentarian of a brutal hyperreality, which manifests in "White Material" as the death and destruction that moves like a wildfire across the countryside to devour the Vial coffee plantation and the world of Maria Vial and her family. Based on the strength of "White Material", I am interested in seeing Claire Denis' other films.
Stephen C. Bird
Author, "To Be to Is to Was"