Claire Denis’ latest offering opens with the image of a recently executed man wearing military uniform, surrounded by onlookers declaring in solemn tones, “It’s the Boxer”. Juxtaposed with this, a white shaven headed male, his back a canvas of tattoos, cowers in a room becoming engulfed by flames before a huddle of soldiers slam a heavy metal door shut leaving him to perish. Told through flashback, White Material firmly establishes an ominous tone of tragedy and annihilation with scant prospect of redemption – familiar hunting ground to anyone who has seen Hotel Rwanda (2004) and films of a similar ilk.
Set in an anonymous African country, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) owns and runs a coffee plantation, threatened with closure by a rapidly encroaching civil war fought between a military dictatorship and guerrilla rebels led by ‘The Boxer’ (Isaach De Bankole) who are already engaged in a steady retreat. Vial stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the dangers that she and her family are being exposed to, preferring to ignore the example set by her workforce, the majority of whom have fled the conflict in a desperate bid for self-preservation. The unexpected arrival of the wounded Boxer, seeking amnesty from his pursuers, further fails to alert Madame Vial who, inexplicably, remains oblivious to the imminent peril.
Claire Denis is admired and admonished in equal measure for the ambiguity of her characters, with motivations often left unexplained or unaccounted for – White Material is symptomatic of this tendency. Maria is so obdurate, that no amount of persuasion, or glimpse of escalating violence, will convince her to abandon her fierce determination to see the harvest through, even though she is warned that, by the time it is completed, there will be no market left in which to sell it. Quite why Maria adopts such a blinkered vision remains entirely unexplored, let alone alluded to, in the absence of it being explicitly stated. Maria’s indifference to the Boxer’s seclusion in her home is not only implausible but ludicrous given he is the central protagonist in a civil war that threatens to dismantle the life she is seemingly so desperate to preserve and protect. Likewise, her son’s sudden transformation from indolence to violent oppressor is similarly unaccounted for. With so many conflicting motivations competing with one another, the film progressively slides into confusion and ultimately sacrifices the audiences’ interest. One suspects Denis regards her rejection of explanation as a kind of emotional complexity – others will see it as indicative of poor writing and direction.
White Material repeatedly wastes opportunities to create an engaging drama by obstinately neglecting characterisation, in no way helped by Huppert who, once again, churns out a performance solely reliant on her ability to look haunted and perturbed. The hype surrounding the actress is beginning to appear increasingly misguided (especially after her insufferably dull performance in Villa Amalia (2009)) alongside the defence of Denis’ ‘style’ which becomes less absorbing with each new project. Nor is it to the film’s benefit that its story begins at the end: in unneccessarily informing the audience that both The Boxer and Maria’s son will be killed, any potential tension is prematurely laid to rest. One suspects Denis, if not running out of new material, is at risk of repeating the same patterns and mistakes that have marred the fabric of her previous efforts.