A woman is obsessed with harvesting the coffee on her family’s plantation even as a civil war erupts around her in White Material, an intense but confusing French drama.
We meet Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) as she stands on a dusty rural road in an African country (we never learn which) attempting to flag down a ride. We learn through flashbacks that she is the manager (though not, strictly speaking, the owner) of a coffee plantation. She is completely devoted to the plantation and to farming its crop and she is, it seems, deeply in love with the country she lives in. She is also white and the country she considers “hers” is in the middle of a civil war. The rebels — led by the Boxer (Isaach De Bankole) — use animosity toward the whites and their “white material” (which appears to mean the trappings of luxury held by the whites, evidence of the oppression of colonialism) to foment support for their (never defined) cause. The rebels might be leading a ragtag army full of machete-wielding child soldiers but their position on the white population doesn’t seem too different from the government’s, which attempts to discredit the Boxer by saying he is hiding out with white farm owners. Which he sort of is — he shows up at Maria’s farm and she lets him stay, offering him food and a bed (it’s never completely clear whether she knows who he is, though she at least suspects).
The government also wants to see Maria leave — helicoptering over her farm telling her via bullhorn to get out and then dropping survival kits, the last help she’ll see from them, it’s implied, when she tells them she won’t leave.
And why won’t she leave? The farm is technically owned by her ex-father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), with whom she seems to think she has some understanding that he will leave it to her. But her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) is the one with the legal rights to it, rights he’s willing to give away to the local mayor (who has his own militia) if it means he and his family can get out alive. Andre lives on the farm with his new wife, a black African, and their young son. Maria seems to live in another house on the property with the teenage son she and Andre have together. He, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), has rooms in both her and Andre’s house and seems content to spend his days sleeping in one or the other house. And while Maria needs all the help she can gets to bring in the harvest, she is fiercely defensive when workers suggest that she get him to help.
So why won’t she leave? It’s not clear. Even as the farm loses workers and loses power and child soldiers of uncertain intention show up, Maria seems to think only of the farm, not seeming to notice it all unraveling around her.
Huppert is engrossing. You can never quite figure out what Maria is thinking or feeling at any one moment, why she does what she does — particularly during the film’s strange final moments. On the one hand Maria seems to deeply care about her land — and she does consider this her land — in a way none of the other members of her family do. She says she is rooted here and it seems to mean both that she has deep connections to the country in general and the plantation specifically but also that this is where she is at home, where she is comfortable being, and she can’t image leaving. On the other hand, she is completely oblivious to what is happening in “her” country. Not only does she seem determined to ignore the war but she refuses to acknowledge her position as a white farmer and what that could mean in terms of the fight between two sides, neither of whom like people like her. Nor does she seem to acknowledge why white farmers are the object of so much hate.
For all that her character is fascinating to watch and the scenes of a country coming apart are well constructed, White Material feels more good-for-you than good. It is an interesting story with details that you’ll mull over for days after seeing it, but it isn’t captivating storytelling. Some combination of the pace of the movie and the arm’s length at which it holds its characters kept me from losing myself in the story. With no fundamental understanding of the central character (or even, for the first third of the movie, who everyone is in relation to each other), I didn’t feel invested in this story.
Not rated. Directed by Claire Denis and written by Denis and Marie N’Diaye, White Material is an hour and 42 minutes long and distributed in limited release by IFC Films. The movie is available through the IFC Films category on Comcast’s OnDemand service.