White Material (2009)

Twenty-one years after her first feature film (Chocolat), Claire Denis has come full circle, returning once again to the place of her childhood: Africa. Contrasting White Material with Chocolat is inevitable, and yet it doesn’t seem completely fair as the two films are distinct in style and story. While both develop similar themes and ideas, they go about it in different ways.

From the onset, White Material disassociates it from the government of France, the protagonist of the film, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) runs a plantation independent of any connection to governmental ties. Therefore, the tension becomes that the revolutionaries that seek to drive out White influences and culture see her as a representation of something she denies being a part of.

While Chocolat built itself around relationships between people and how their ideas, values and cultures clashed, In White Material, Maria’s relationships are intentionally muted and downplayed. She has ties to various people, but her core relationship in the film is with the country of Africa. She’s tied to it so deeply that she sacrifices almost all her relationships in order to keep some small sense of ownership and place in the country.

Another core distinction from Chocolat is that a lot of the issues and conflicts are at the forefront. While they simmered in the background in Chocolat, often unspoken, White Material takes place in the midst of a revolution that is bringing to a head those ideas that were subtext in Chocolat. A gut reaction might then deride the film for being too obvious and straightforward in the context of Denis’ body of work.

However, one could argue that since Denis now revisits Africa through the eyes of an adult, she must face the tensions that exist which she would have been naïve and simple enough to overlook as a child. Maria is a woman of responsibility and she must face the issues. The great tragedy is that the child is still inside her, the one who simply wants to cling onto the familiar and remain part of an Africa that is moving against her.

The representations of race which seem obvious at first, give way to more nuanced views. While the Blacks are quick to condemn White influence through this idea of “white material,” how much of that material has made them complacent and lazy? In other words, are they not slowly assimilating that which they wish to destroy?

The inverse of this is also explored as Maria and her son seem to want to deny their Whiteness in order to be accepted. Maria speaks just as poorly of the Whites as the Blacks do, a sign that she no longer sees herself as White. Her son seeks a different, more volatile way to become part of the Blacks by actually actively seeking to destroy the Whites with them.

It’s simple to contrast White Material with Chocolat and see the former as a more obvious and literal exploration of the themes and ideas of the latter. It certainly is the most easy to follow of Denis’ films. However, this is an easy out to avoid the even more complicated and ambiguous themes Denis delves into through the eyes of a more mature, and perhaps more cynical, filmmaker.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing