White Material is probably the third or fourth Claire Denis film I’ve written about on here. It’s another great one. Denis is probably one of about 3 or 4 directors working right now who makes films that I would love to have made. There are plenty of other films and filmmakers that I love, but that I have no interest in emulating (too strong a word, but for lack of a better one…). Denis = awesome.
Basic plot: Isabelle Huppert, incredible as always, is Maria Vial. As civil war spreads across an unnamed African country, Vial fights to save her coffee plantation. The rest of the excellent cast includes Christopher Lambert, Isaach De Bankole, and the underrated Nicolas Duvauchelle.
Many Denis trademarks are here: incredible attention to sound, lack of care for the 180 line, poetic shots. And poetic is the word to describe White Material.
I’ve written about the 180 line in this blog before. Sometimes I care about it and the breaks mean something. In a Denis film a 180 line break doesn’t mean anything. It just so happens that the best place to put the camera involves breaking the line. It’s freeing in White Material and not confusing. Denis is able to pull this off because her style throughout is consistently unconventional and focused more on small moments than overarching sequences.
Denis’ time cuts in White Material are gorgeous. We jump forward in time frequently – sometimes by a few minutes, other times by hours and oftentimes an unknown amount. Her time cuts are less for screenwriting (ie less to progress plot) and more for pacing and the ineffable “feel” of the film. Her time cuts are often abrupt, follow a lingering shot, and move us from static to motion-filled moments. It gives the film an odd rhythm, one that is obsessed with the movement of things and the stillness of life – traits that are as important as story in any Denis film.
There is a general fascination with observation in White Material: a wisp of a woman’s hair, a coffee bean grinding, 3/4 close-ups. All of these speak to an underlying attempt to cling to the things of life that appear beautiful when observed for extended periods of time – that is, when observed in a cinema that uses the close-up as much to simply see as to emphasize emotional quality.
Denis also skips many “climactic” moments. They occur, but they are frequently offscreen. By pushing violence and typical drama to the side of the frame, Denis creates a film that looks more to the cause and the effect than the moment itself. This is a film that is not interested in the action and the violence, but in the build and the aftermath. In this way Denis finds a neighbor in another favorite director, Claude Chabrol.
An exception to this rule is the dreamy, nightmarish, sequence towards the end where – SPOILER – government soldiers silently kill a number of child-rebel-soldiers. Denis shoots the sequence as another director might shoot a romantic moment. The lead-in is expressionist – shots of tiptoeing feet, a curtain rustling in the wind, a hand reaching to a knife. The silence feels real and, to hit the cliche, becomes deafening. We want to hear the cries and commotion but don’t. Instead, the surreality of the moment is more effective – it’s true helplessness and the idea of harsh violence amidst a world that silently ignores the happenings is strong.
But Denis isn’t afraid to vary this technique and does so (another SPOILER) at the end, where she finally shows full-on violence onscreen as Vial hits a rival, conniving character with a baseball bat. The contrast between the two moments of violence is also the contrast between war and personal violence. One is distant and faceless, the other is close and unambiguous. Her form expertly matching this content, Denis creates a film that oscillates between empty and full, silent and loud, surreal and real. It’s a masterpiece.