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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Film - White Material - directed by Claire Denis

Star rating – 7/10

Isabelle Huppert is superb in this violent, brutal and fractured film about the dying days of an unnamed French colonial African country. She plays Maria Vial, who we meet as she is clearly in desperate straits, ignoring the pleas of the departing French army from their helicopter to leave with them for the sake of her family. The magnificent Huppert shows Maria as beautiful, strong, stubborn and proud, as she defies this advice and implores the fleeing native workers to stay just one more week to help her get the coffee harvest in on her family plantation.

Claire Denis directs this taught and uncomfortable story, told partly in flashbacks to happier times just prior to the outbreak of civil war. It is not at all clear whether she wants her audience to empathise or despise Maria and the white community like her who have taken the wealth of the country for their personal gain while the local population lived in relative poverty.

Maria is struggling with her own family too: her lazy teenage son Manuel, who has considerable difficulty even getting out of his bed as civil war rages around them. His encounters with some child rebels make extremely uncomfortable viewing, and have a profound effect on Manual. Maria’s ex husband is played by Christopher Lambert. He too implores her to go home to France but she cannot imagine what her place would be in French society, feeling as she does umbilically tied to the African landscape.

This film is barren and beautiful and shocking. It does feel slightly over long, and the score at times imposes a little too much when the dramatic scenery and action could speak for themselves. It does reveal just what lengths settler communities the world over will go to in order to protect their wealth and material possessions, and it is no spoiler to say that they do not meet with a positive end. Thought provoking and bleak, admirable and horrific – Dennis certainly likes to challenge her audience.

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