Material Girl

Claire Denis, White Material, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 102 minutes. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert)

DREAMY AND ELLIPTICAL in its fractured timeline and visual lyricism, yet so searing and bloody that it’s indelible, Claire Denis’s White Material (2009) hinges on the central conflict of its beleaguered protagonist Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert, steely and obdurate): that the Africa she loves doesn’t love her. The film unfolds in an unnamed country—Congo, Angola, Senegal, or Ivory Coast, perhaps—engulfed in civil war in a nebulous present or recent past. “The horror! The horror!” swirls around Maria as she struggles to bring in the harvest at the coffee plantation she runs on behalf of her feckless ex-husband (Christophe Lambert), her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor), and her slothful son (Nicolas Duvauchelle).

Maria is a spiritual cousin of the landowner played by Huppert in 1930s Indochina in The Sea Wall (2008) and to a lesser extent Aurore Clement’s plantation wife in wartorn Cambodia in Apocalypse Now Redux (2001). She is probably the most physical character the star has ever played: Constantly on the move, Maria clings to the back of a bus and also drives a tractor, a motorcycle, and, at gunpoint, a truck full of enraged, terrified day laborers. She’s a heroine in denial and out of time. Her beloved farm, a holdout against all that’s reasonable, becomes the symbolic nexus of postcolonial arrogance as “The Boxer” (Isaac de Bankolé), a dying icon of the rebel forces (and Maria’s secret sharer) takes root in her son’s bedroom. As his army of kids toting huge assault weapons approach from one direction and a murderous patriot militia approaches from another, the “half-baked” son goes native.

Denis was partially raised in Cameroon (where the film was shot) and other French colonies. She began her directorial career with the semi-autobiographical Chocolat (1988), which filtered racial inequality in a ’50s colonial household through a web of desire. Her exploration of homoerotic tensions among French legionnaires in Dijbouti in Beau Travail (1999) was a typically oblique study of colonizers in extremis. When White Material slows down, interracial desire emerges as an inevitable metaphor for irreconcilability—the ex-husband has fathered a son with the black housekeeper; Maria is regarded as the troublesomely blonde, blue-eyed sexual other by the manipulative local black mayor. But it’s the threat of carnage that propels the movie over and above Maria’s need to gather, rake, and cleanse the beans to make what a hectoring pro-rebel DJ describes as “mediocre coffee” that the blacks don’t drink. It’s this imperial folie and the destruction of her family that brings this dynamic, wrong-headed woman of the earth to the brink of murder.

White Material opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, November 19. For more details, click here.