Encountering Judge Clark Douglas is challenging yet rewarding. Well, mostly just challenging.
In the African heat, one woman stands alone.
"This is his country. He was born here. But it doesn't like him."
Facts of the Case
Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert, I Heart Huckabees) is a French woman operating a coffee plantation in Africa (the actual country is unknown, as certain elements of various countries seem to be present). The farm is owned by her father-in-law and was formerly run by her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert, Highlander), but no one has a closer personal connection to it than Maria. As civil war begins to close in around the property and those with the means to do so flee the country, Maria determines to stand her ground and continue running the farm. As the situation grows more dangerous, Maria sticks to her routines and normal life with alarming steadfastness.
It's likely that Claire Denis' White Material will leave most viewers feeling very conflicted. This is a natural reaction to the material; a reaction the film works hard to generate. The film depicts a country splitting apart and dividing against itself, and the film follows suit by inserting at least some measure of conflict or contradiction in every area.
Maria behaves with all the unwavering conviction of a noble cinematic martyr, but in actuality her behavior is little more than fruitless delusion and madness. Every piece of evidence would suggest that she should leave the country; running a coffee farm will very quickly become a dangerous impossibility. The longer she stays, the longer she increases the likelihood that she will die. At times we feel an immense deal of pity for this deluded woman, but that pity has a tendency to dissolve into anger when we witness how cavalierly she treats not only her own life but the lives of the workers she has employed. The sad fool occasionally takes on the darker shades of a deluded dictator.
In many ways, White Material is an intensely oppressive, downbeat, and unrelenting look at a land doomed to self-destruction. And yet, it would not be dishonest to call the film "beautiful" for the tenderness with which it observes its characters even as it puts them through great torment. Similarly, the visuals are often gorgeously constructed and offer breathtaking looks at the natural wonders of this war-torn land even as the brutal atrocities of humanity are depicted very frankly.
There are plenty of hot-button global issues touched on over the course of the film and one certainly senses a searing documentary lurking within the belly of many scenes, but Denis is not particularly interested in delivering a sermon or a call to action. By refusing to set the film in any particular part of Africa and instead making the unknown country a familiar composite, Denis removes us from the specificity of the situation and encourages us to step back at look at the larger matters. Never mind why the country is at war; simply observe the startling fact of young children holding firearms and marching off to war. Denis' examination of images like that are both pointed and enigmatic; full of fury and sad mystery. Sometimes these images are stately and carefully-composed, while on other occasions they are glimpsed through the lens of a nervous shaky-cam.
It's difficult to discuss White Material in conventional terms, because it isn't a terribly conventional film and asks viewers to approach it differently than most films. The narrative is an intriguingly fractured experience, with the line between the past and the present often made intentionally vague and the editing finding ways to isolate the characters and their experiences. The dialogue is infrequent at times and doesn't often get around to spelling out the film's larger purposes. The movie is more than the sum of its parts. You mix and match the scenes and those oh-so-striking single images in your mind and find small bursts of resonance along the way; a process which begins midway through the film and continues long after you have finished watching it. The experience is puzzling and disorienting, but you can sense the clarity of purpose in the fine-tuned emotional ride the film puts you through. It is a film that depends as much on the viewer as on the director. The latter has pulled off her share of the load admirably; there are rewards waiting for audiences willing to put in some work on their end. Either you observe this film, soak it in, chew on it and take something from it, or you sit there in frustration waiting for this opaque little movie to explain itself.
I've mentioned in the past that a lot of IFC Films transfers have been pretty disappointing, but this one (perhaps due to the fact that Criterion is releasing) looks quite sharp throughout. The level of detail is much stronger than usual for IFC, with dazzling nuance on display during the daytime sequences. Nighttime sequences struggle from black crush at times, but still look respectable overall. The audio is impressive if low-key, spotlighting an intriguing score which emphasizes mood over location quite effectively. Dialogue is clean and sound design is pretty immersive. For the most part it's a low-key track, but a small handful of sequences manage to make a strong impression (the helicopter scene early on comes to mind). Extras are lighter than usual for Criterion but still well worth checking out: a series of thoughtful interviews with Denis, Isabelle Huppert and Isaach Bankole, a 12-minute featurette by Denis on the premiere of the film, a deleted scene and a theatrical trailer. The features are good, but for the most part the focus on the technical elements of making the film as opposed to its more elusive ideas.
Some critics have described White Material as a compelling character study. That's true, but there's so much more to be found within these 105 minutes. The film isn't for everyone, but patient, adventurous viewers should give it a look.
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