White Material Review

In a wartorn African country, Isabelle Huppert struggles to survive in this impressive film from Claire Denis.

Paris-born Claire Denis spent much of her childhood in Africa, and the continent has played a significant part of her work. This was evident from her semi-autobiographical 1988 first feature Chocolat onwards. 1999’s Beau Travail, a trasnposition of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd into a French Foreign Legion setting was a notable revisitation to Africa. Cowritten with Marie N’Diaye, White Material returns us there.

In an unspecified country – presumably in the present day, but that is also unspecified – Maria (Isabelle Huppert) runs a coffee plantation. She is separated from André (Christophe Lambert), who is the father of her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). The region is in the grip of civil war. Government militia clash with rebels who follow a charismatic figure known as “The Boxer” (Isaach de Bankolé).

Denis’s films challenge the viewer, often concentrating on mood, atmosphere and character nuance, with plot details sometimes obliquely or elliptically conveyed to the viewer. This hasn’t always been successful: the combination of this modernist aesthetic with vampire-horror conventions in 2001’s Trouble Every Day was to me disastrous. But when it works, it produces films like White Material, a distinctly impressive work.

At the beginning of the film, The Boxer, whom Maria has hidden in her house, is unbeknownst to her found dead. As Maria hitches a ride home by bus, much of the action proceeds in flashback. As the civil war intensifies, Maria tries to persuade her workers and foremen to stay on, but they disregard her and flee. Government helicopters broadcast warnings and drop survival packs. André tries to make a deal with a local army officer for protection. Meanwhile, Manuel becomes increasingly alienated, and after his humiliation by some local children he goes on a rampage. The title refers to a brand of cigarette lighter, but you can’t miss its symbolic significance.

While White Material is too deliberately low-key to be called a thriller, Denis maintains a steady and compelling pace throughout. A typically commanding performance from Huppert holds the film together, though Duvauchelle and Lambert (the latter looking considerably different from his Hollywood heyday) are also impressive. Denis regular de Bankolé has a small role, which is as much a presence as a character. Yves Capes’s widescreen camerawork and Guy Lecorne’s editing are also fine.


Artificial Eye’s all-regions DVD release of White Material is dual-layered and PAL format. There is also a Blu-ray edition available.

The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. There’s really little to say here, this being a transfer of a new film from presumably a HD master. It’s sharp and colourful (a pinkish tone in parts being presumably intentional) with solid blacks.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. The mix is front and centre for the most part, with the surrounds being used mainly for the music score (by Tindersticks) and for some subtle ambience. It’s not the most showy soundtrack out there. There is a Dolby Surround (2.0) alternative. English subtitles are optional.

The extras begin with an interview featurette (10:02) from the French-movie satellite channel Cinémoi. It contains interviews with Denis and Lambert along with clips from the film. As you can guess from the short running time it doesn’t dig very deep, but Denis does discuss her original inspiration for the film, a mutual wish with Huppert to adapt the first novel by African-raised English novelist (and now a Nobel Prizewinner) Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing. (The novel was filmed in 1981 with Karen Black in the lead role, but I haven’t seen it.) Lambert talks about his admiration for Denis’s work. The other extra is the theatrical trailer (1:43).


Updated: Jan 09, 2011

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