White Material (2011)

Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis & Marie N’Diaye

Claire Denis is a very well respected filmmaker from France. Sadly her latest film, White Material, is the first experience I have had with her. But after this experience I expect to encounter more of her famous work, most notably Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum. This particular film seems like a strange starting point for me to witness Denis at work. Although based on White Material, perhaps there is no best starting point for Denis.

For the casual film viewer, White Material may be a struggle. It is not a film to watch lightly. It is the story of Maria Vial, played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert. Vial is a Frenchwoman who runs a coffee plantation in Algeria. The catch is that civil war and unrest is arising all around Algeria, including the region where the plantation is. Maria is determined to stay on the plantation with her husband Andre and son Manuel, despite the fleeing of her many workers and impending danger of the war.

What makes the narrative, which features its share of violence but also of the calm beauty of unrest, as compelling as it is is the structure Denis chooses to tell the story. The film opens on a dead man nicknamed “The Boxer” and a helpless man caught amid the flames of his home. Then Denis cuts to Maria trying to get a ride back to her plantation. We soon learn, however, that this beginning is in reality an ending. The true story has already happened, so Denis flashes back to tell it, but the genius of the structure is the little bit of information the audience learns at the very beginning of the film.

To admit, I was not engulfed in the film all the way through, but after some time to reflect on the experience of White Material, I am more and more impressed with what Denis is able to do with her camera. I would be the first to admit that my movie tastes are often more mainstream than a fair amount of “movie buffs”, but my love of these small, simple, what some might call “artsy” films is growing, and it is because of people like Denis who are able to deliver the simplicity in such stark, real ways that evoke the beauty of the endless capability of cinema in the world today.

I knew little of Algeria and of the French, and perhaps I still know as little as it was a work of fiction, but these are the kinds of films that are able to teach me something important: a fresh perspective. I find the best films are able to do that. And while White Material did not change my life, nor did it skyrocket into my favorites of all time, it was able to entertain me and deliver something new.

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