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White Material
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by Jay Seaver

"Dark material."
5 stars

"White Material" is a pretty good movie with a pretty uninspiring trailer, at least in the United States. I don't really blame the distributor for this; Claire Denis makes films which favor character and setting over plot, but that doesn't get butts in seats unless you already know her work. So, they try to cobble together a story, and it winds up looking like a movie about how white plantation owners are the ones who suffer during African unrest. That's just one facet of what is, in fact, an intriguing bit of work.

The movie opens in an interesting way, with two different scenes of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) returning to the Vial Café plantation. In the first, she's sneaking around the landscape before finding a van; in the second, she seems carefree, riding her motorcycle. In both, it's made clear that this African country is in the process of exploding, but Maria refuses to leave the coffee plantation so close to the harvest. In some ways, the situation inside the gates is as volatile as outside: Maria basically runs the business with father-in-law Henri Vial (Michel Subor) ill; she does not hold back her disappointment about her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) being a layabout. She's actually fairly fond of José (Daniel Tchangang), the son of her husband André (Christophe Lambert) and Lucie (Adèle Ado), the housekeeper. Maria seems to have no clue just how close the danger is, either in terms of Le Boxeur (Isaach De Bankolé), a wounded nearby rebel leader, or or a pair of child soldiers stealing supplies.

White Material could be a simple observation, but Denis and her collaborators paint a surprisingly complex and engrossing picture. The parallel openings inform us that we are going to be bouncing around the timeline a little, informing us that this is more likely to be a film about hubris than perseverance; hitchhiking-Maria almost certainly comes after motorcycle-Maria, but by seeing her trying to sneak home first, much of the admiration we may have for her desire to stick it out is stillborn. And while Denis doesn't fill her film with plot twists, she does fake the audience out once or twice. She's not looking for "gotcha!" moments, just making sure that the logical left side of one's brain doesn't wander while she feeds the emotional right.

Much of that feeding comes from watching the cast. Isabelle Huppert naturally takes center stage; she may not be unique in her ability to hold an audience with her performance in a sparsely-plotted film, but there are likely few trusted to do so by so many directors so often. She's never less than fascinating here, making Maria sympathetic despite her frequently selfish motivations and all-but-delusional estimation of the siutation around her. Huppert sells us on how Maria is not averse to physical labor or racist, but still gives her a nervousness around the lower classes. She's harsh at times, desperate at others, but almost always intriguing. The rest of the cast supports her nicely, from a nicely weathered Christophe Lambert - just looking at him is enough to let the audience figure out his history - to the quiet yet compelling Isaach De Bankolé. And then there's Nicolas Duvauchelle, who builds Manuel from something easily dismissed to something fierce.

It's not just good acting; Denis stages things well. She and her co-writers may not necessarily follow every thread from beginning to end, or fill us in on every bit of backstory, but the characters' world seems full, with every action building on both national and personal histories. Every setting has the right balance between showing its age and being maintained through actual use. The incidents seem authentic without attempting to be too reminiscent on specific cases.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film, though, is how Denis and company depict chaos and violence as being almost contagious, infectious things. Most of the characters seem to be reasonable people, but as things go to hell, fight-or-flight reflexes engage, as does the need to become predator rather than prey. That's the theme that builds as the movie goes on - violence expanding outward in all directions, until the original reasons are lost and it just becomes a mix of opportunism and blind rage.

In the end, a story has been told, even if it's not a particularly linear or pleasant one, and told well. It's not preachy, but it's got a definite point of view. Individual bits of "White Material" don't always mean much on their own (although they more often than not do), but the full picture is quite impressive.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19570&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/15/10 01:01:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Venice International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 New York Film Festival For more in the 2009 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  19-Nov-2010
  DVD: 12-Apr-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  19-Nov-2010
  DVD: 12-Apr-2011




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