Directed by Claire Denis
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Nicholas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Bankolé
M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" is seemingly doing the rounds on film soundtracks, gracing the back cover of Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire since it first bowed on her 2007 album Kala. In actuality, it doesn't really fit those films, and would be much better suited to something like White Material, which is set amidst civil war in French-speaking Africa and contains a lot of themes in M.I.A's song, such as greed, possession, and social constraint.
As Maria, a white coffee farmer living with her husband and son, Isabelle Huppert is expectantly stellar as a woman who defies warnings from the military and protestations from her family to preserve her life in what is increasingly becoming a war zone. As countless locals desert the area as if it were a sinking ship, Maria refuses to leave, but as with Beau Travail Denis's characters (particularly Maria) lack sufficient backstory, and though Huppert gets as much out of the woman as she can, the reason for her stubbornness and resistance to change is something relatively unexplored. This is also true of the family dynamic, which is a disinteresting and shady area of the narrative.
Throughout, White Material offers sparse, thoughtful perspectives of conflict and freedom, and whether either or both is a necessity. It struck me yesterday, while watching Andrea Arnold's problematic Fish Tank, how comparatively well Denis manages to convey different ideological views of liberty. The visual richness of colour that engulfs the characters, and the polarised extremes of proximity that render them either trapped or staring into unending desolation, are a very rewarding element of White Material. So too the moody score, and collection of Reggae songs which help to create an Eastern vibe to the film and extend its sense of scope.
Particularly towards the beginning the film is edited very briskly, cutting between community warfare and Maria on board a bus. Despite only a couple of references back to the bus, in the later stages it eventually becomes clear that the journey is the most present event in the film, and the prelude to the conclusion of events. This probably serves as the biggest problem of White Material, in that you're never really sure where you're at with it. The decisions with regard to the narrative structure, and the escalation of Maria's son's mental state, feel sudden and done for effect, and Denis seems generally unsure of how to tell the story, however competent she is at addressing the themes.