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White Material review

Is war really civil?

White Material review - Few filmmakers swing from lyrical to harsh with the intuitive emotional force and fluency of Claire Denis. Between ’01 and ’02, the French auteur followed sex’n’blood art-horror Trouble Every Day with the tender, tactile Vendredi Soir and nailed both. Now, true to form, she follows the gently ruminative 35 Shots Of Rum with a return to abrasive turf.

The setting also returns Denis to Africa, location of her ’88 debut Chocolat. In an unnamed country ravaged by violent regime change, coffee-plantation owner Maria (Isabelle Huppert) is advised to leave for her safety.

Brazenly stubborn, she stays put even as hired hands split, her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) plots to sell the plantation and her layabout son Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle) does sod all (at first). As armed child soldiers roam, suspicions that Maria is harbouring a rebel officer lead to deadly repercussions.

Denis plays this as part colonial critique and part political thriller, but adds texture and ambiguity to buck genre clichés. The propulsive plot is deceptively complex, chopping back and forth in time while drawing tense momentum from Tindersticks’ moody score and Huppert’s energy.

Political threads combine with slippery psychological depths, Huppert’s typically contained intensity rendering Maria’s motivations (madness? hubris?) properly murky. Meanwhile, Denis’ vision of Africa foregoes exoticised Euro-visions: Out Of Africa this isn’t.

Tension thickens on the way to the inevitably apocalyptic conclusion, its horrors foreshadowed in the film’s opening shots. That direct plot trajectory seems unusual for Denis, given her previous tendency to approach subject-matter with quietly suggestive moments. Don’t be fooled, though: White Material moves at quite a lick but, in its harrowing and haunting images, it lingers with nightmarish force.

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