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Film Review

White Material

Claire Denis, the accomplished French director, whose credits include Chocolat, Beau Travail, and recently, 35 Shots of Rum, has just produced another film set in Africa. Denis, the daughter of a French diplomat, grew up in French Africa, and has remained fascinated by the region and its people, including African immigrants in France. Her latest film, White Material, looks at Madame Vial, well cast and played by Isabelle Huppert, as the French owner of a small coffee plantation where she lives with her ex-husband, grown son, and father. As the harvest is nearing, a rebel group with child soldiers is beginning to overrun the country. The group's brutality is well known, so her workers understandably flee, while she wants to complete the harvest and prevent the year's crop from spoiling. The film opens with a group of army soldiers finding a dead rebel leader, The Boxer, in a bed. The scene shifts suddenly to Vial flagging down a small bus crammed with refugees, and climbing on the back, clinging to a ladder while the bus speeds down a dusty road. Then shifts back to the French Army advising her to leave, but she is determined to finish the harvest. Then a shift to a wounded man, hiding from the troops, and eventually finding refuge in the plantation house.

The story continues to unfold, often shifting backward and forward, but quickly becomes more understandable. Andre, her ex-husband, is worried about their safety and wants to sell the plantation, while her handsome son is lazy and strange, with Vial telling him how ashamed she is of his laziness. The father, who started the plantation, is sick, but also determined to stay. The tension, from the very beginning to the shocking end, is unrelenting. And the understated presentation of the story contributes to it. Like most of Denis' other films, the cinematography is outstanding, with long takes of the countryside mixed with intense close ups of the characters. Everything seems so closely observed. Many scenes are memorable, such as a group of child soldiers filtering quietly through the brush. Many scenes have a great beauty to them, such as the bright red coffee berries being washed and processed, even in the midst of a tension filled film. Also like most Denis films, she shoots on location, in this case in Cameroon, which adds greatly to the reality of the story. The music is very effective, partly African, partly pop. The acting is uniformly outstanding, but Huppert is magnetic in her apparent vulnerability as a slight, blonde white woman wearing a sun dress, directing muscular black men. She is often dirty and covered in dust, which looked real to this reviewer. Curiously, Huppert, a very attractive woman and well known actress, looks very similar to a younger Claire Denis.

White Material is a powerful film with a disturbing story, probably not for the faint of heart. But it is fine. It has been a long time since I watched a film as tense, but loved it and it confirmed my already high opinion of both Isabelle Huppert and Claire Denis. Try to see this on the big screen. Playing at the Bridge.

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