Monday, 6 December 2010

Claire Denis's 'WHITE MATERIAL'

white material 
directed by claire denis 
starring - isabelle hupert, christopher lambert, nicolas duvauchelle release - december 6th (dvd & bd) 
certificate - 15 

there´s this trend on social network du jour, facebook, where you´re supposed to change your profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood in order to raise awareness against child abuse. it´s kind of a way for us, miserable comfortable procrastinating gits, to remind ourselves that there are things to be done in the world. we just can´t really be bothered do them. in this light hollywood always touched the subject of africa with the same patronizing condescension like the yuppie who buys the big issue every three months and thinks he made a difference to the world. so they fly their jets and throw their biggest stars into that continent and we can praise them with awards and compliments because those movies made us “aware” about the production of diamonds, or the western political influence in the african political instability. Aware of our ‘awareness’ and the implications of such. 

western films prefer this political approach when there´s so much more potential for human analysis. a skeptic would say the west is just too guilt-ridden and needs a ‘live 8’ to fill that shallow necessity. a skeptic just said that. 

gladly there’s claire denis. french director born and raised africa with a knack for palpable observations of human behavior. i say gladly because when she flies back to africa she doesn´t want to point fingers, nor romanticize the exoticism. denis takes the opportunity to do what no one seems to dare, for some reason: use africa as a mere background, a setting with just as much potential as any other. no politics. no guilt. no phone number in the end to support anything. only a woman in a place, the basis of drama. 

maria vial (hupert) is a french-white land owner in an unnamed african country. when political turmoil hits and the government start chasing rebels and the white people, the french military evacuates all of its citizens, but maria stays behind because someone needs to pick this year’s crop of coffee. that is the reason on the surface, deep inside vial knows she eventually will have to run away as well and move to paris, but in paris she won´t be herself and do what she loves the most, so better do it one more time, surely? 
can you see the simplicity of this dramatic problem? all denis does is ask, what would a very strong-willed woman do in a country that hates her? nothing more. there are mere grasps of politics but those are only incidental, instead the action centers in maria and the consequences of her stubbornness. the coffee plantation is not even hers. 

vial and manuel, her son, move in their own lines without to much exposition into their motivations. the only way for this to work is if the cast is up to the par. duvauchelle has the same gut of an early vincent cassel, we will be looking how far can he go. and then there´s hupert, like an avalanche she is the grounding force behind the film, her serene and seemingly emotionless look has more character than anything else i have ever seen this year, which is a very common phrase everytime i watch a film with her. 

denis knows that africa isn´t a continent in constant need of our attention. africa is what africa is so why be patronizing? taking this route was already a bold move but even better is how she seems to be aware of that - the title pretends to have all these political connotations, yet they are not followed by the story; the transformations of the characters are never tainted by our expectations, and the only time maria seems to be close to any influence on the country´s fate is forgotten because someone needs to take care of all that coffee. denis is not saying anything about africa, she´s saying something about us. it´s more important to be aware of that.

[f.l silva]  

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