Friday, July 30, 2010

White Material

The last of Claire Denis's films I saw was the beautiful but confusing Beau Travail. Whereas White Material is less about the beauty and more about the story.

The story is of Maria Vial the white French manager of a coffee plantation owned by her sick ex-father in law, who is trying to harvest the coffee crop as the country disintegrates around her. Her staff flee, so she heads off with a wallet full of money to hire more. She hurries round cajoling them, her son and her ex-husband (who looks disturbingly like a stoned Robert Redford) to help her with the harvest all the time denying and turning a blind eye to evidence that the rebels have the upper hand and she should leave for her own safety.

The theme is that white people may own land in Africa, may be destitute if they are forced out of Africa, may even be born in Africa but are they really African? A secondary theme is the fragility of civilisation.

You could possibly read a feminist sub-text into this film too, as Maria is surrounded by unreliable men: her plotting ex-husband, their lazy son, her sick ex-father in law, her deserting staff, the retreating French army, the devious mayor, her son's gym teacher - now extorting money at a rebel road block etc. It is the men who are destroying things and betraying her, and the target of her bottled anger.

To add to the feeling of chaos, it is ambiguous as to which side the men with guns are on and the story telling is some what abbreviated. A local radio DJ plays the role of providing expository information. At the end I talked with the people seated either side of me and we couldn't agree on exactly who was who and what happened.

There are a couple of odd events, the son's unexplained metamorphosis and the final scene. The presence of English speaking child soldiers in Francophone country is also not explained.

Ian's rating 3/5

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