The setting is an African country during a period troubled by an uprising. In a farming region home to one of the rebel chiefs, Maria refuses to relinquish her coffee crop and to see the danger to her family that such an attitude provokes. For her, giving in is proof of weakness, cowardice. Andre, her ex-husband and father of their teenage son, is concerned about Maria’s blinkered outlook, her stubbornness and pride. He decides to organize, without her knowing, the family’s escape and its repatriation in France.
About the film
Returning, 20 years after Chocolate, to Cameroon, which was the setting for an important chunk of her childhood, Claire Denis is forever thwarting all the folklore and all the imagery of Africa—we duly remember how much she hated Karen Blixen’s book Out of Africa (and probably the film of the same title, a pompous Hollywoodization of the Danish writer’s clichés), to which White Material is the perfect antidote. It also becomes as much thanks to the outstanding performance by Isabelle Huppert, who has a place in the film’s mise en scène which no other actor or actress has ever had in a Claire Denis film. In a more secret way, but also less decisively, the film is the outcome of the convergence of the forces of three women, the director, the actress, and the co-scriptwriter, Marie N’Diaye, in a way which cannot fail but call to mind the title of the novel which won her the Prix Goncourt in the same year as the film was made, Trois Femmes puissantes (Gallimard). “Puissantes” , “powerful” in English, not in the sense of power, singular, for none of them have any power, but in the sense of having powers—powers to invoke, seduce, question and disturb—which each one of them knows how to make use of, powers which converge here for this white nightmare in black land, which leaves infinite reverberations among its spectators.
Her films bear their viewers away, towards a hidden place: to the heart of darkness, it might be said, and all the more readily because African sources play a decisive part for her. But this darkness is not necessarily that of inextricable jungle or the blackness of the human soul. It is the darkness of the mysteries of our existence, of our desires, and our fears, here, now, and everywhere. It would be a futile quest to seek out among French filmmakers someone as filled with a sense of the world, in all its geographical and human complexity, as Claire Denis. As the grand-daughter of an inhabitant of Amazonia, and daughter of a colonial administrator, she was brought up at the mercy of her father’s postings in an Africa which has directly inspired several of her films (CHOCOLATE, GOOD WORK, WHITE MATERIAL), and haunts them all. She came to film somewhat haphazardly, after being an IDHEC (film school) student with no particular bent, and discovered the degree of her affinity with the language of film as a result of other journeys, aesthetic and geographical alike. Listen to the noise of the large Korean port in THE INTRUDER after the mediaeval chill of the Haut Doubs region of eastern France, feel the dry, white heat of WHITE MATERIAL, hear the harmonics of three continents around the cock-fighting pit in NO FEAR, NO DIE: this particular cinema is highly sensitive to the powers of places, to the political stakes of meetings, to the joyous and dangerous enigmas of the differences between languages, cultures, quality of light and music. Other journeys, other encounters, in Asia especially, in South America and in the Arab world too, would then continue to make Claire Denis the most cosmopolitan of French filmmakers, of either gender. © From Claire Denis—A Sense of the World By Jean-Michel Frodon