Clare Denis’ White Material (2010) combines beautiful cinematography, meticulously placed ambient music and a cast of stimulating characters to portray a very evocative and open-ended drama. The framing of the wild land of Africa helps to decentralise the individual performances of its cast by juxtaposing them with one another; the images of this untamed continent cannot be underestimated as anything less than a statement from the film’s director.
White Material relies on all of its elements to create tension, and how those elements interrelate and depict emotion and love. And whilst Denis’ drama makes no drastic effort to create a sole connection between the audience and its characters, it does asks us to witness an account of their experiences.
White Material follows the story a French family who own and run a coffee plantation in an undisclosed African nation. They are caught up in the midst of some sort of regime change that involves the decolonisation of their own people; they are white and French; their neighbours are all black Africans. Maria (Isabelle Huppert), her family, and their way of life are seemingly no longer welcome. This is a place that remains in tune with the forces of nature and does not have any place for modernity, standardised family life and the values of modern day France.
At the outset of the film we watch Maria as she wanders through a barren and sunburnt landscape, appealing for a passer by to stop and pick her up – she appears to be afraid. To enhance this intense scene, Huppert is framed wearing a very feminine dress that perfectly symbolises the sense of displacement that Denis tries to convey throughout. Further to this, Huppert’s pale skin and red hair provide a stark contrast to the earthy and rugged landscape – Denis wants the audience to immediately feel distanced. As if to emphasise the point even more there is a lack of non-diegetic sound that helps to reassert the isolation of Maria – it makes the scene and the place it depicts seem far removed from modern day norms.
White Material focuses upon people of differing racial and social and backgrounds, and their relationships with one another when faced with adversity. It juxtaposes intense human drama with potent shots of barren, sparse and deadly looking landscape and rarely adheres to the traditional rules of film making. The traditional long to medium to close up shot is rarely applied, as Denis’ focus is on distancing shots that truly encapsulate the isolation of a French Family living in this African nation. However, the few close-up shots of people are usually canted and obscured which further distances us from the characters the film portrays.
There are clearly some sublime performances from Denis’ cast, including Isabelle Huppert (Maria), Christopher Lambert (Andre Vial) and Nicolas Duvauchelle (Manuel). In particular, the wonderful Isabelle Huppert is fantastic and conveys pain and isolation in a manner that appears to be so internalised and naturalistic that they become almost overwhelmingly potent.
Ultimately, White Material should be recognised as a truly successful piece of art, yet it may ultimately not achieve a popular response from audiences due to the absence of a standardised plot and story, while its lead actors may not be accessible enough for mainstream cinemagoers. However, for lovers of true arthouse drama, and for those who admire the power of film as art, this is a must see.