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Arts and Culture

‘White Material’: Portrait of the Colonist in a Post-Colonial Land

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Posted on Nov 19, 2010

Isabelle Huppert plays the lead in Claire Denis’ “White Material.”

By Richard Schickel

In a post-colonial, pre-revolutionary African country, the French peacekeepers are pulling out and government troops are contending for control of the rapidly failing nation with a rebel leader known as The Boxer, whose troops are largely child soldiers. Wounded, The Boxer has taken refuge in a coffee plantation owned by the Vials and managed by Maria (a muscular Isabelle Huppert), who is determined to hang on to the acreage despite the increasingly desperate conditions she confronts.

Director Claire Denis’ “White Material” tells her story in a jumpy jumble of narrative leaps that at first annoys and then absorbs the viewer. Another, perhaps lesser, director would probably have done her best to clarify the confusions of this story; instead, Denis embraces them. The predominant image of this film—repeated in a dozen variants—is of a lone woman walking or driving the empty roads of this beautiful, unnamed country, seeking a salvation that is both practical and spiritual.

It is time to harvest her crop and her workers have fled the plantation. Therefore, her first order of business is to replace them. This she briefly manages to do, although her new crew also decamps almost immediately. For allies she is pretty much reduced to a feckless former husband and a “half-baked” son (as someone describes him)—a lad who may merely be afflicted with adolescent angst, but who is more likely on his way to becoming a full-scale nut job.

We never quite understand why saving the plantation is so important to Maria. Yes, the family has lived there for a couple of generations, And, yes, we understand that she cannot imagine any other life for herself. On the other hand, it has been years since they turned a profit on their crop, and the old colonial life style that once sustained them is long gone. To remain in place is to assure an absurd and anonymous extinction—the machete at midnight, the rape by the roadside.

A couple of times Maria reflects on the beauty of the landscape. But that scarcely seems sufficient reason to wage this hopeless fight. She is, we come to see, stubborn simply because that is her nature. Caught up in the practical details of her struggle, she cannot pause to contemplate the larger meaning—if any—of what she is doing. She is, you might say, morally mute. Racing hither and tither, improvising this or that solution to whatever practical problem presents itself, she has no time for irony, let alone long, long thoughts.

Therein lies the rough beauty of this film. The hills may be alive with menace—child soldiers shooting off their guns, rebel and government troops ready to kill for no good reason—but Huppert’s character, as sinewy in spirit as she is in physical appearance, just keeps plowing on. Never once does she openly acknowledge the peril that surrounds her. She seems to feel that if she just keeps busy she is impervious to threat.

Eventually one comes to think she represents that curious sense of exceptionalism that has led to so many modern tragedies—not only in the colonial world, but elsewhere as well. “White Material” never mentions it, but Maria is, in effect, shouldering the White Man’s Burden. She has the energy, the intelligence—and the blindness—to dominate a vastly larger and infinitely more chaotic civil population. But she cannot recognize that it would require only a few—well, yes, “half-baked”—organizing ideas for the restive natives to casually, heedlessly exterminate her.

Her only real option is to run. This was true in Nazi Germany, in Kenya or Rwanda, dozens of other post-colonial contexts as well. But people do not exercise that choice. They think the ugliness must only be temporary. They rely on their pride of place in the pecking order. They are full of an unrecognized hubris. And so they die. The last we see of Maria is her standing alone in open country, at the end of her tether, but perhaps not fully realizing, even then, that she has reached that point.

“White Material” is a difficult, narratively thorny, film. But in Huppert’s uncompromising performance—she never once appears to harbor an abstract or idealistic thought or one that we would feel comfortable sentimentalizing—and in Denis’ refusal to embrace easy, uplifting answers to an insoluble problem, it offers us a portrait of an exemplary, persistent (and, in a certain sense, tragic) figure. For Maria Vial is the victim of a spirit too primitive, too animalistic, to be the avatar of a new, somewhat better society. She will, we are sure, die the victim of blind forces that can only make a bad place even worse—more brutal, more irrational—than it already is.   

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By omisaide7, November 21, 2010 at 11:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I love the karmic twist…sounds like us? I hope so. My ancestors need to be redemned.

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By roserock, November 21, 2010 at 5:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

beautifully written, and significant that it’s a female director, as there are so few, in a field dominated by men. Claire Denis is a fine director & Isabelle Huppert is always a pleasure.

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By prgill, November 21, 2010 at 3:27 am Link to this comment

Gerard, you are on-the-money of course.

The Maria character is profoundly tragic. By using the qualifier “in a certain sense”, Richard Schickel displays his ignorance of critical traditions and of the tragic in particular, ultimately revealing a sentimental view of life.

This story speaks to the heart of the existential dilemma. Maria’s existence is meaningless outside of the processes that infuse her life with meaning. If she gives up the struggle, if she accepts the inevitability of decolonization, she loses. If she stays, she risks certain transformation, even annihilation. Again, she loses.

This film appears to be a perfect metaphor for the difficulties of colonialism and the process of decolonisation. Without having seen the film, I might add that the film is about “rootedness”, about our core values, and our links to the land, a 21st Century version of Gone with the Wind

It is hard for us Americans to understand this. Our colonial experience has been on the whole quite successful: from conquest of sovereignty (1776-1783), from manifest destiny and the conquest of the west to Seward’s “icebox”, we have generally succeeded in consolidating and occupying our conquests. Our relation to “the land” has been one of service to the colonizing ideal.

America’s wars of ‘living memory’ have not been wars of conquest and colonization, but wars to save the world from conquest, to preserve our access to the vital spaces on which we depend. The wars of living memory have been righteous wars (dare we say ‘crusades’?) to preserve a way of life.

Where we have conquored and colonized we have done so by proxy, through corporations and armies of lawyers, accountants and managers whose very essence is their detachment from the rootedness that is at the core of this film. And we have backed these agents with the most powerful military on earth.

If Maria gives up the struggle, she accepts the inevitability of decolonization. All that remains is for us to ask whether she might not have done it differently.

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By Salome, November 20, 2010 at 6:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“They are full of an unrecognized hubris”.  The kind of hubris that says ‘we’ are the superior people, and having dominated, and exploited, everybody else for centuries, we are entitled to continue to do so.

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By gerard, November 20, 2010 at 3:43 pm Link to this comment

Quote:  “...a portrait of an exemplary, persistent (and, in a certain sense, tragic) figure. For Maria Vial is the victim of a spirit too primitive, too animalistic, to be the avatar of a new, somewhat better society. She will, we are sure, die the victim of blind forces that can only make a bad place even worse”...
  Key words—“in a certain sense”.  Why this qualifier?  Why not in every sense tragic?  Why not legitimately, really and truly tragic?  Her way of life is lost, she is lost, alone, desperate, soon to be personally destroyed.  Why not tragic in every sense of that word?
  Here the judgmental idea of “deserves” pops into mind.  Not entirely tragic because “we” judge that she “deserves” what she gets, even though she herself may not be personally guilty of any crime.
  Or, another choice even more narrow-minded:  Her plight is not really tragic because she is “a victim of blind forces”—the idea of inevitable destiny as destructive and heartless processes, many of which are entirely human-made and could be humanly
remade into constructive processes.
  Or how about those already constructive processes “imbedded” in human natuare that have been unwittingly constricted not by “blind forces” but by human greed?
  No, no, she is “a victim of an “animalistic” spirit etc.” whereas it is that very “primitive” spirit that can save her—and us—not the killer spirit,  but the mother spirit.
  Well, on and on spins the old word-witch.  But I do get so tired of endless assumptions of fatalism.  Most people never think twice when they read—and are consequently victimized. Or am I the victim?

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By Aaron Ortiz, November 20, 2010 at 11:27 am Link to this comment

Nazi Germany? Please stop using the cliche of cliches. The mention of Nazi
Germany doesn’t add anything; it detracts greatly from an otherwise well-written

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By Aaron Ortiz, November 20, 2010 at 11:26 am Link to this comment

Nazi Germany? Please stop using the cliche of cliches. The mention of Nazi
Germany doesn’t add anything, it detracts greatly from an otherwise well-written

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By gerard, November 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm Link to this comment

Sounds like us!  But is it inevitable?  Is it the only thing we can do?  The best we can do?  Or what?

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