White Material is what Apocalypse Now might have been like if it were entirely from the perspective from the French plantation owners. They reside on the land of their fathers, aware of the world crumbling around them but steadfast in their desire to remain on what they feel is rightfully their property. When someone points out the futility of the situation, they spit at the idea of surrender.
The same holds true for Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a coffee plantation owner. Claire Denis opens her film without any establishment of Maria's plantation and the social structure of the unnamed African country in which she lives. Instead, White Material opens as the country plunges into civil war, the camera gliding over horrific sights such as burning buildings and bodies laying in a line as if even a mass grave is too good for them. Child soldiers, government troops and marauding rebels/pirates scour the landscape.
At the center of them is Maria, who insists upon seeing her crop through to harvest. A helicopter reminiscent of the last chopper out of 'Nam circles over her, begging her to get out while she can. This is the first we've seen the helicopter, but the man with the megaphone says this is his last warning. To drive the point home, he throws down some survival kits as a final measure, the tiny, rectangular packages dropping like massive clumps of volcanic ash on a dusty road that suddenly feels even more arid and desolate. With a vague smirk, Maria continues on home.
Shot mostly with hand-held cameras on grainy stock, White Material initially gives off a hint of realism until Denis begins to twist and bend that aesthetic into her usual, more poetic style. There can be no mistake of the underlying politics of the film -- a vicious attack on European arrogance and privilege concerning Africa and other developing areas of the world -- but the loose plot allows it to broadcast its pedantic message while fleshing it out more subtly through the delicacies and nuance of Huppert's performance.
Saddled with a husband, André, (Christopher Lambert) who attempts to sell the plantation behind Maria's back to "save her from herself" and a feckless son (Manuel, played by Nicolas Duvauchelle) who uses the closing of the schools by rebels as an excuse to sleep in all day, Maria finds herself not only separated from an increasingly hostile indigenous population but from her own family. The only person she enjoys any relationship with is The Boxer (Issach de Bankolé), a rebel leader who hides out on the plantation to recover from a gut wound. Their bond, never particularly spoken, nor even communicate through body language -- both Huppert and de Bankolé are too rigid in their facial expression to let anything but strength radiate from them -- yet they enjoy the most complex relationship in the movie by virtue of one being a rebel seeking to tear down the other's way of life.
Wearing lightly colored clothes that make Huppert's fair skin seem even whiter, Maria looks almost alien among the African people. However, like those plantation owners in the long cut of Apocalypse Now, Maria sees no other option for herself. But in that fatalism lies a grim sense of Eurocentric pride. Huppert, with that stiff upper lip that would have served her well had she been born across the Channel, walks with a steely resolve and never backs down. When a band of rebels stop her truck and demand $100 to pass, she stares down their guns and calmly reminds the young men that she knows their parents as if she caught them trying to T.P. her house. By staying, Maria can look down upon the whites (and even some natives) who flee, but when she heads out to replace her vacated help with some more workers like an American heading to the nearest Home Depot to solicit manual labor, we see through her hypocrisy and realize that she will never be a true native of the country.
Maria says she does not wish to leave for France because she will grow soft and complacent. It's a defiantly feminist moment, and one that darkly suggests that a chaotic situation such as this is the only place where a woman can handle something as big as a plantation by herself. Yet the comforts of her own home far outstrip those enjoyed by poor Africans, and her attitude, delivered with a conviction that might signal her as heroic in another movie, here seems predatory. Along with that vile grin she gives the warning helicopter, this downplayed moment reveals the beast within, a woman who might actually get off on civil war because it allows her to feel superior. She continues to believe that persevering will win the respect of the natives, but they will never see her as one of them. Nothing exemplifies this more than José, the son of Maria's black ex-husband. Implicitly, Maria sees José as proof that she belongs in Africa and dotes upon him, but when she goes to collect him from school she reveals that she has no blood relation to José, nor any bond through marriage now that she and the boy's dad are divorced. She simply appropriates him the way she does everything else; hell, she even asks the boy to help in the field. When he later helps with the mounting mischief around the plantation, it becomes inescapably clear that no one wants Maria to stay.
Just as 35 Shots of Rum made up for its elliptical narrative by anchoring the film in locations, so too do recurring images form the tether that roots us to White Material. André drops his gold lighter, which child rebels pick up and show to The Boxer. The lighter is asinine, expensive and gauche, and it matches the eyesore that is the Vial plantation, parts of which are painted in awful golden-yellow. A gate with a chain and lock is meant to keep the plantation safe, but the guard ran off with the key leaving the padlock undone. Still, people continue to make as if securing the gate, though there are so many holes in the surrounding fence that even the show of pretending the gate works is a waste of time. Hand-held radios broadcast agitprop from a rebel presenter, a presenter who labels all Europeans "white material" and rails against the plantation owners. However, he also has a playful side, and at one point he even stops railing and plays music, bobbing along to the beat in his secret studio. When the official military finds him, they assure the airwaves that everything is under control, only to deliver a message more fearsome than anything the rebel broadcast. (This is foretold earlier in the film when a soldier acts as if Maria's cooperation in paying rebels' tributes makes her worse than the bandits.)
Already a political screed and a character study, White Material also morphs into a horror film through Denis' direction and Yves Cape's cinematography. The use of child soldiers dispenses with the more sensational aspects of City of God to capture the full terror of someone too young to have fully developed empathy being given authority to decide on the lives of others. I've always balked at the idea that children are the portraits of innocence, as that lack of developed empathy makes them selfish, and that romanticized innocence is but a sign that social conditioning and decorum have not been instilled. To see them simply appear on hills in beautifully scary shots engenders a gripping feel, a sense of unstoppable corruption and unyielding bloodlust. So mad are these children that they in turn drive the son, Manuel, to insanity when they beset the plantation and torture the young man with a disturbing mixture of premature hardness and a warped form of childhood playtime.
If White Material is occasionally too cynical and defeatist for its own good, the layers present in Huppert's performance and Denis' politics create a tone poem out of didacticism. One can easily draw parallels to Iraq and Afghanistan from the movie, seeing as how the white person continues to gently exploit indigenous people while hypocritically viewing herself as an equal (but an equal who's better than others), but the core theme of the film is the danger of pride in all its forms. Maria may indeed be too tough for France, but this unspecified country is certainly tougher than her, and the land itself appears to reject her like an immune system to a foreign contaminant. The final moments reveal that White Material's first shots were technically its last, only cementing the sense of inevitability to the destruction that awaits these characters. So set in stone is Maria's fate that when she at last breaks down, I did not react in shock so much as question what took her so long to see this coming.