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Review: White Material (2009)

Director: Claire Denis | 100 minutes | drama | Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Bankolé, William Nadylam, Adèle Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong, Martin Poulibe, Mama Njouam, Pierre-Ange Tatah, Suzanne Ayuck, Lionnel Messi Inoussa, Antoine Ndichut, Wakeut Fogaing, Denise Djuikom, Marie-Françoise Wouogo, Christian Bitang, Justin Ambassa, Bernard Yopa, Catherine Matzi, Madeleine Manipet, Ebenezer Repombia, Armand Tamo, Poupou Poutougnigni,

“White Material” has a promising starting point. A middle-aged woman (Isabelle Huppert) runs an African coffee plantation whose harvest is threatened by an impending civil war. The workers take the hare path and the men of the family – father-in-law, ex-husband and son – seem more of a burden than a pleasure for this Maria Vial. However, she stubbornly persists in bringing in the harvest and keeping together a disintegrated family, even though the circumstances are not right.

As in most of her films, plays a difficult-to-fathom woman: the contours of Maria’s personality are fixed, but her behavior shows that emotions and intellect do not always go together. What to do, for example, with Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her African-born son who likes nothing more than to lie in bed. Maria leaves the adolescent even though he insults the staff and does not cooperate in the case. She tries to make the best of it, by pulling everything to herself. The civil remains an indeterminate threat, although it is clear that the Africans will only praise the French if they offer big money.

Interestingly, Manuel joins the rebels who are also thwarting his mother. However, “White Material” stands out more through brooding images and a ditto soundtrack (from Tindersticks) than through elaborate relationships, and that is a shame. The relationship between mother and son deserves more attention, and the demise of a colonial environment – a bit of a dated theme anyway – is not described in full. In “White Material” there is talk of moral decay and a woman who has courage, but also Maria remains a seeker in uncertain circumstances, in a film with many loose ends. OK: life is not black and white and film reality does not have to be, but we expect a filmmaker to trigger these emotions in the viewer. And unfortunately 62-year-old succeeds less.

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