Out on DVD today, one of my films of the year…
(Claire Denis, Fr, 2009)
A candid, ground-level view of post-colonial Africa that subverts the usual ‘white man’s burden’ homilies to go on the attack. Disorientating, confrontational and thought-provoking
The ‘white folk in Africa’ sub-genre is perilously difficult to pull off. For every The Constant Gardener, there’s an Out of Africa, but even the good films find it hard to shrug off the tourist label, using an entire continent and its troubles as the backdrop to Western travails. Most of these films don’t even have the backbone to set their stories in a real country (unless, like Hotel Rwanda or Black Hawk Down, they are based on actual events), preferring to create fictional nations, or not bother naming the place at all.
White Material is an example of the latter cliché, but in every other way it’s an acute subversion and commentary upon the post-colonial world. This is an Africa at war with itself: authorities and rebels battle it out, turning orphans into pre-pubescent killers, while both sides view the expatriate community with undisguised contempt, their decadent trappings dismissed as the titular ‘white material.’ And yet, for everybody – black or white – this is home, and most people just want to get on with their lives.
Claire Denis grew up in Africa, and her first-hand experience makes this one of the most compelling studies of this cultural clash there’s been. She doesn’t take sides: the sight of trigger-happy, machete-wielding gangs creating impromptu roadblocks for extortion is nail-bitingly tense…and, in lesser hands, teetering on racism. But Denis’ approach is honest: these characters exist, just as do the wider populace of corrupt politicians, rabble-rousing DJs, frustrated teachers and pragmatic farmers we meet.
And the whites aren’t exactly shining beacons of civilisation. Isabelle Huppert’s Marie Vial is tetchy, arrogant and stubborn as hell, seeing her family’s plantation as her birthright because…well, she was born there, even if she seems unaware of the irony that she’s harvesting the land she loves for profit. That disconnect is everywhere: Marie’s is a different world from what the Africans know, and Denis contrasts the grubby rooms Marie’s workers must sleep in with the elevated brick house of the owners, a colonial throwback that’s a constant literal reminder of the social gap. In one telling scene, Marie stuffs bundles of local banknotes into her bag…but only takes a handful of dollars, and you just know that the latter is worth more. Marie herself is a parody of Western beauty, with her unkempt hair, pallid complexion and a mouth slashed with lipstick, and Huppert’s performance is a marvel of avoiding grace or vanity in the pursuit of more difficult depths.
No wonder Marie’s husband Andre (a revelatory, sardonic performance by one-time Highlander Christophe(r) Lambert) wants out – but his motives aren’t out of respect or common sense, as he’s also a workshy layabout, mired in debt. In contrast, Marie’s work ethic is honourable – but her attitude is still slowly destroying everything she’s achieved. Factor in the parasitic figure of Marie’s father, still lording it up even as he lays dying, and her fucked-up son Manuel, and it clear there is a moral sickness in the family’s outdated value system.
In the film’s most bravura set-piece, Manuel has a run-in with two African kids that sends him over the edge. But he comes to recognise that he has more in common with those kids that he realised. It’s the next generation on both sides who suffer the aftershocks of colonial times, struggling to adapt to a world that should have moved on but remains rooted in old divisions.
No wonder Denis’ style is itself so fragmented. Flash-forwards and ellipses punctuate an opening act that’s already low on exposition, discombobulating us as we try to get the lay of the land. Speaking of which, while majestic wide shots capture the timeless beauty of the landscape, it’s juxtaposed with jittery, sea-sick close-ups, usually following characters as they race about in pursuit of their dreams or in flight from their enemies. The overall balance, poetic yet edgy, is symbolised by Tindersticks’ mournful, abrasive post-rock soundtrack, a far cry from the lyrical work they did on Denis’ last film, 35 Shots of Rum. Here, the music, like the film, is unsettled and ill at ease.
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