French director Claire Denis has long been cinema’s poet of dislocation, for good reason. As a child, she spent her formative years as a white European in French West Africa before moving to a Paris suburb as a teenager; then, as a young woman, she relocated to America to work as Wim Wenders’s assistant on Paris, Texas (1984) and for Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law (1986) before returning to Africa to direct her debut feature, Chocolat (1988). A resident of disparate societies who never felt completely at home in any of them, Denis has built her career on a series of films dealing with displacement, alienation and the simultaneous attraction and repulsion among peoples of different cultures, races and sensibilities. White Material (2009) is an intimate epic that is, unfortunately, extremely relevant to today’s global political circumstances and is her most searing and complex meditation, to date, on these themes.
White Material is set in the midst of civil war in an unnamed African country, representing any number of real-life locations, such as Ivory Coast or Liberia. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is a European businesswoman who runs a coffee plantation that belongs to her ex-husband’s family but has been promised to her. Given the conflicts between government soldiers and young rebels are turning the area into a war zone, the family promise is, more or less, worthless. As other members of the French ruling class flee the country, Maria stubbornly stays on her land, refusing to leave even though she can no longer convince the locals to work for her, and her chances for survival seem limited. When a local rebel hero, The Boxer (frequent Denis collaborator Isaach de Bankolé) shows up on her property and her own son joins the resistance, Maria’s situation becomes even more untenable.
Denis focuses intensely on Maria’s almost maniacal determination to stay on her land but, through a sophisticated visual strategy, manages to place the heroine’s personal story in a far larger context — the character’s POV is limited, but the director’s is broad enough to encompass a large variety of points about race and class. There are a multitude of extremely close shots of Maria in motion, compositions that obliterate everything but Maria’s face and parts of her body even though Denis is working with a 2.35:1 frame. These shots reflect Maria’s self-absorption and obsession, as she willfully ignores the historical and political environment that surrounds her. Denis alternates these images with wide shots that make Maria small and insignificant against her landscape — images that tell the truth about Maria’s fragile situation. All the while, Denis also employs a technique in which the camera follows Maria from behind, simultaneously giving us Maria’s point of view and a more objective view of Maria herself — a combination reflecting Denis’ desire to tell a large story from one outsider’s perspective.
Denis’ usual director of photography, Agnes Godard, AFC, was unavailable to shoot White Material, but she found an equally strong partner in Yves Cape, AFC, SBC. Cape, whose work with director Bruno Dumont made Denis a fan, takes advantage of the harsh, direct light in Africa to convey a constant sense of heat and desolation. It is a look largely dictated by practical concerns since Cape’s lighting equipment was held up in customs for four weeks of shooting. This forced him into a style that relied heavily on natural light, a limitation that ultimately led Cape and Denis to the correct look for the film — so much so Denis later felt constrained when the lights did arrive. The unforgiving light that comes with shooting so close to the equator strips Maria bare visually just as she is being stripped of everything she owns economically and emotionally amidst the strife of civil war.
Criterion’s high-definition transfer offers a crisp, detailed presentation of Cape’s blazing African exteriors as well as their opposite, interiors such as an opening scene in which people and objects emerge only briefly from total darkness. The contrasts are impeccably preserved, as is the range of Cape’s palette, a mix of saturated browns, reds and yellows simultaneously vivid and bleak. The lossless sound quality of the surround mix is exceptional as well and allows the listener to fully appreciate White Material’s highly original sound design: natural sounds, such as fire and wind, alternate with abrasive electronic noise, such as constantly droning transistor radios, which are subtly integrated with a score that is as much design as music. It all adds up to a hallucinatory soundscape that gives the film a dreamlike quality — though ultimately the dream deteriorates into a bloody nightmare.
The disc’s supplementary section begins with a trio of interviews illuminating Denis’ intentions and process: a 24-minute piece with the director herself, a 14-minute interview with Huppert and a 13-minute conversation with De Bankolé. The Blu-ray also includes a deleted scene and a trailer, as well as Denis’ 12-minute video diary from a 2010 film-festival screening that brings her back to Cameroon. This short film is both hilarious and heartbreaking for any filmmaker who has ever suffered through a poor festival presentation of his or her movie as it perfectly sums up the frustrations of projecting at an ill-equipped venue. Like the feature it accompanies, it is a film that encompasses a great variety of emotions and ideas and is another Denis study of a stranger — this time herself and in a strange land.