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February 16, 2012

White Material

by Franz Patrick


White Material (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Maria (Isabelle Huppert) was in charge of the Vial coffee plantation which was owned by her father-in-law (Michel Subor). Civil war and racial tension intensified outside of the plantation but Maria was convinced that she and her family, her ex-husband named André (Christopher Lambert) and her son named Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), would be safe within property lines. But when desperation was in the air, all rules were thrown out the window. Directed by Claire Denis, I didn’t warm up to “White Material” right away. I was initially confused with what was happening because the story started without providing a historical background. However, over time, I realized it didn’t need to because it really was more about how the Vial family responding to the chaos that threatened their very lives. The moment it got my attention was when two boys decided that they were going to murder Manuel as he closed his eyes while floating on water. Tension was extremely high during that scene because I cared about both parties. Their political beliefs didn’t matter to me. I cared about the possible murderer because they were just children. They may have thought they knew what they were doing but children’s minds are highly influenced by external factors. Propaganda was everywhere. Hate speech was on the radio, they gathered information from their peers, and it was possible that they had no parents to help them discern right from wrong. As for Manuel, late twenty-something, I cared about him, too. He might have been a tattooed slacker who never lent a hand in the plantation but he didn’t deserve to be hunted like an animal. What happened to him after the incident was devastating yet it was an excellent commentary about the political turmoil that Maria so desperately tried to ignore. Huppert was wonderful as a woman in utter denial. There was no doubt that I wanted to shake her, even slap her multiple times, to make her see that her actions were downright ill-advised. I understood that she loved the land and she considered Africa, not France, as her home. After all, Africa was where she gave birth and raised her son–she loved him completely, almost painfully, even though she didn’t exactly think he would turn out as someone who would let himself go. Huppert infused the right amount of pride, arrogance, and strength in her character. Her performance was restrained but the way she changed her body movements and facial expressions during crucial scenes made a lot of lasting impact on me. Her capacity for making mistakes was what made her relatable. Ambiguous, challenging but fascinating, “White Material” need not be admired but it certainly deserved to be talked about.

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