Sunday, March 15, 2020

White Material Is a Grim But Engrossing Effort From Director Claire Denis

I've only seen two Claire Denis movies, High Life and now White Material. However, if these two features are any indication of her overall filmography, then her works are made by bold creative swings, grim story material and truly impressive filmmaking. More specifically, both of these projects also demonstrate Denis' affinity for non-linear storytelling as well as the psychological toll extreme hardships have on individual people. Both High Life and White Material also share a tone informed by a sense of inevitable doom, in both stories, the end feels truly nigh for the on-screen characters.

In the case of White Material, that grim aesthetic comes from the circumstances that lead character, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), is caught in the middle of. She runs a farm in an unnamed African country that's in the middle of a revolution. Rebel soldiers are fighting back against an oppressive government and while all of that is going on, Maria Vial concerns herself with keeping her farm running. All of her workers just quit and even her most loyal employees are expressing uncertainty over sticking around. Vial then heads out into a nearby town to recruit workers as she tries to keep things running like they always do.

But trying to maintain normalcy under these circumstances is like trying to do your routine jogging in the middle of a flood. The external conflict keeps creeping its way into Vial's world, including in how it ends up impacting her son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). While all of this is going on, Claire Denis chillingly conveys the aforementioned apocalyptic quality into the world of White Material. This is a truly stirring element of the production, particularly since it's placed against Vial just putting on blinders and trying to go about business as usual. The world is crumbling around her and her primary concerns remain clinging to the status quo. She sees her fleeing workers not as a sign to also evacuate but as a symbol of how the people of this country "...don't deserve this land."

The mindset of Vial is a complex one and it's impressive how well White Material doesn't boil her down to just being a binary representation of good or evil. Her very presence in the country that White Material is set in makes the character an extension of the hideous concept of colonialism and her attitude towards her workers reflects how White settlers see the culture and citizens of non-white countries as just objects for their own use. However, she also helps to shield a wounded rebel fighter by the name of The Boxer and there's an undeniable relatable quality to how she reacts to certain changes in her world.

When Vial is confronted at a road stop by a gunman that she recognizes as the familiar father of a local young man, you can feel her quietly-realized but no less potent dismay at seeing a recognizable face become an adversary. It's such a richly complex character that legendary performer Isabelle Huppert is able to play with impeccable success. Huppert's able to bring Vial to life with all kinds of recognizably human contradictions as well as a visceral rendering of the characters' determination to maintain her routine way of life. You totally believe Vial could just go about her normal life during all of this chaos considering how convincingly Huppert realizes this critical part of the role.

A fascinatingly complex protagonist and an equally richly detailed lead performance aren't the only way White Material manages to create such an uneasy aesthetic built on inevitable doom. Claire Denis and Marie NDiaye's screenplay utilizes this domino effect involving all the central characters and events that transpires across the whole film. Everything in this film is connected and all the individual pieces have grim ripple effects on each other. This is especially interesting in regards to the character arc of Manuel, which goes into an unpredictable but fascinating place. The long-term effects of Manuel's journey also reinforce that, no matter how hard White Material's protagonist tries, holding onto normalcy in the middle of larger-than-life turmoil truly can be a fool's errand.

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