Movies: White Material ***
(15A, Limited release)
Published 02/07/2010 | 05:00
Veteran French auteur Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail) spent most of her childhood in colonial Africa, and there's a very personal undercurrent to her latest film, White Material.
Set in an unnamed central African country, Denis' film tackles the thorny issue of white Africans who have become so embedded in the landscapes their forefathers colonised that they cannot contemplate living anywhere else.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria Vial, who married into a French colonial family that owns and runs a coffee plantation.
Maria has separated from her husband André (Christophe Lambert), with whom she has a grown-up son. And although she's not the plantation's owner, it's she who is most determined to keep it running and keep the Vial family tradition alive.
In fact, she's become obsessed with it, and while her ex-husband plots with the mayor of the local town to sell the land and her useless, pampered son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) mopes in bed, she rushes around preparing for the harvest.
But Maria's head is in the sand: a rebel group of child soldiers has been touring the territory sacking white homesteads and killing their occupants. The Vial plantation is now on their radar, but Maria either can't believe or won't accept that the writing's on the wall.
In White Material, Denis and her director of photography tellingly evoke the sights and sounds of Africa.
As usual, Denis eschews the conventions of the Hollywood narrative and moves back and forth in time as she paints an evocative picture of the Vials and their predicament.
There's something both pathetic and tragic about Maria's flailing efforts to defend her traditions and way of life, and no one does grim determination quite like Huppert.
But the film loses both focus and discipline in its explosive Shakespearean climax. Denis lays on the colonial symbolism a bit thick, and long before the grisly end, Maria's tortured stubbornness has become more than a little infuriating.