White Material (IFC Films, NR)

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I said earlier that her films don’t often find a critical consensus, but White Material kind of has: everyone but me.



The theatrical one-sheet for the new Claire Denis film White Material says in gigantic letters across the top, “There’s no better filmmaker working in the world right now.” This seemingly hyperbolic blurb comes from Nick James, a film critic I admire. While it’s a bold statement that I wouldn’t have made, I would honestly be hard pressed to think of many filmmakers who are better than Denis. Where it gets tricky is that Denis is very much her own filmmaker; you can’t compare her immediately recognizable style with anyone else’s. I mean this as a very serious compliment, but signature approach is very poetic and open to interpretation. That is to say, her films are much more focused on imagery than on regular old narrative storytelling, so viewers who like their hand to be held when watching a movie will likely not “get” her films, and different people seeing her movies tend to get entirely different things out of them.

This is just an elaborate way of saying that even among admirers of Denis’ work (which I most certainly am), there isn’t always a critical consensus about which films of hers are the best, which ones are the worst, and what they all mean. For example, I am rather fond of her 2001 horror film Trouble Every Day, whereas everyone else in the critical community seemed to hate it. Now we have White Material, which is probably second only to 1999’s Beau Travail in terms of critical elation illicited (rightfully so—I think Beau Travail is easily her best film), but which left me cold.

White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as a white woman named Maria who has lived and worked in an unnamed African country on a coffee plantation for most of her life. Most of the film’s thrust comes from the strange relationship Maria has with Africa and its people. She seems very affectionate toward and protective of Africa (often in a rather dubious way), but Africa and its people have little use for her, a white woman who thinks she is entitled to do whatever she wants with their land. Still, for Maria Africa feels like home. Her boneheaded adult son was born there and knows nothing else of the world, and Maria seems to feel true fondness and appreciation for the land, country and people that she is ultimately exploiting. It’s an interesting dichotomy, especially given that the area is in a state of political unrest in the film, but for me it didn’t add the resonance to the film that I’ve found in her better works.

That said, I seem to be in the vast minority on this one, at least in terms of Denis fans—I said earlier that her films don’t often find a critical consensus, but White Material kind of has: everyone but me. And I by no means think it is a bad film, it’s just that I wasn’t moved by it in the way that I’ve come to expect with Denis’ work. Either way, White Material looks to make a bigger splash than Denis’ films usually do. It’s already played in various other parts of the country for about two months now—successfully, I might add—and it has been announced that the film will get a Criterion DVD and blu-ray release in April, which is high praise in and of itself. | Pete Timmermann

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