Director Claire Denis has made an astonishing, puzzling war movie with White Material, featuring a haunting central performance from Isabelle Huppert.
As Maria Vial, a French woman in an unnamed African country shattered by civil war (the year is also not revealed, but the film has a modern feel), Huppert exhibits a quiet stubbornness. When French Army helicopters fly over Maria's coffee plantation, and soldiers tell her it's time to get out for her own safety, she refuses; it seems at first that she simply doesn't realize the danger she and her family could be in. However, Denis slowly reveals in captivating fashion that Maria has completely lost her grip on reality.
Denis brilliantly stages her movie out of order, starting the movie with characters, who will play big parts in the ensuing film, dead and dying. It's a risky move for any filmmaker to show you their ending first, but Denis and company pull it off.
Maria's once-prosperous family now wanders about their gutted plantation in a post-traumatic haze. Her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert of Highlander and Tarzan fame) is trying to sell the plantation behind her back and flee. Her troubled son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), sleeps most of his life away, only to be harassed by rebel children when awakened—after which he goes completely around the bend. And her father-in-law now does little more than take baths and sloth around the house.
Each of these weak-willed men paints a pretty good picture as to why Maria has withdrawn into herself and resists authority. Socially, she's alone (although the movie hints at an affair with another character), and the plantation is all she has.
Huppert never has a moment in this film when she seems to be overdoing it or slips out of character. Her Maria is stubborn to a fault; Denis never spells out in words why Maria refuses to leave her plantation for the safety of her homeland—because Denis doesn't have to. The answers are entirely in Huppert's expressive face, her increasingly disillusioned behavior and the behavior of those around her.
There are many echoes here of Apocalypse Now, with Maria's journey ultimately feeling a little like that of Martin Sheen's Willard in the Francis Ford Coppola epic. Those who have seen Apocalypse Now Redux (Coppola's "director's cut") know about the reinstituted scene involving a French plantation in the middle of the Vietnam War, in which a family refuses to leave their land. This film almost plays out like an extension of that very scene, simply moved to a new location and time.
One could say that Denis' film is about basic human nature when faced with the atrocities and confusion of war ... and one would probably be wrong. Most people would run for the hills once rebel children showed up on their property leveling machetes, yet here, such actions only serve to make Maria stick around.
The movie, more than anything, is a testament to human selfishness, and how obsession with the self and one's material belongings can lead to total devastation. Perhaps Maria has been mistreated and neglected in the past, but that is no excuse for her actions. Maria is given a series of choices, and she makes all of the wrong ones. The plantation has become her identity, and she refuses to let it slip away. Given the tragedies that result, there's nothing heroic in her decision to stand pat.
Yves Cape's artful camerawork and the sonic soundtrack by Stuart Staples help make this film an all-around rich experience. For future films, Denis would do herself good to keep them nearby.