In White Material, the latest from French master Claire Denis, the fantasy of colonialism confronts the nightmare of armed rebellion.
Helicopters kick up swarms of red dust that give way to clouds of black smoke. Handheld radios broadcast the mouthpiece of the revolution, a head-nodding DJ predicting a rising level of violent change with his casual overtures.
Obstinate and immovable in the swelling tide of danger is Maria (Isabelle Huppert, a tiny force of nature), who runs a coffee plantation in this unnamed African state undergoing a violent revolution powered by gaggles of preteens. Maria curses the helicopters that swirl overhead warning her to vacate immediately; she tries to convince her employees to jeopardize their own safety in order to stay and harvest the crop, and even tries to tell the bandits who run the roads that they're charging her the wrong rates as they level rifles at her. Maria is a woman who seems to be used to having guns pointed at her.
It's as if she's walking through a nightmare and only she knows it. She is willing to play by the rules of the dream, but there couldn't possibly be any real danger. White Material is a composition in this frightening dream logic. Its imagery is so immediate, its energy so palpable and its ideas so vivid that the film offers a total immersion experience in Maria's dream that is not a dream.
Meanwhile, Maria's ex-husband is negotiating to sell the plantation without her knowledge, the wounded figurehead of the rebellion (Isaach de Bankolé) is holed up on her property, and her son is going native in a way that makes that surfer kid from Apocalypse Now look like Bobby Brady playing Cowboys and Indians.
But the only thing that seems to bother Maria is everyone's insistence on acknowledging reality. Contained in Huppert's diminutive frame is a character of Ahabian proportions, determined beyond reason to beat nature and fate. And it's this feeling of the inevitability that the rebellion will burn everything in its path that makes White Material frightening and keeps it from being about some white colonialist lady trying to have things her way. The country in which this rebellion is occurring is unspecified, as are the politics of the uprising. This omission reads like a statement in itself: Whether Maria deserves to be driven out or not is beside the point because she is bound to be. Or, as one character tells her with assured calm, "Extreme blondness calls out to be pillaged."
White Material takes place in unnamed place at an unspecific time. The chronology is often unclear, and even the film's own characters sometimes have difficulty describing their relationships to one another. But Denis' imagery does work that a plot never could: There is more perplexing reality in the way Maria's son shoves his shaved-off hair into their servant's mouth than there could be in any description of his motivations.
While occasionally confusing, Denis' approach has its own kind of logic, which becomes apparent when she manages to wring a stirring climax out of her fragmented story. Like the rest of the film, its impact comes as much from its complex thematic meaning as its deep emotional resonance, and trying to explain exactly what works about it is like trying to explain the effect of an especially vivid dream: when you reach out for it, it disappears, but that doesn't make its hold on you any less real.