Jul 9, 2010

Film Review: White Material

DIR: Claire Denis
CAST: Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert,
Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach De Bankolé

Acting is like magic. Anyone can learn the process, anyone can do the trick, but the real trick is making it not seem a trick. With most acting, as with most magic tricks, you can see the joins, you can see where the trick begins and ends. With great acting it’s invisible; genuine magic. If the comparison holds then Isabelle Huppert is one of the world’s finest magicians.

In White Material she’s performing a difficult trick, one almost always performed up close and personal, as the film revolves around her character, and Claire Denis often films her fascinating face in close up. Huppert plays Maria Vial, whose life has been spent running a coffee plantation with her husband (Lambert) in an unnamed African country. Now there is the threat of civil war, and danger comes closer every day, while Maria, desperate to stay in her home, races to get the harvest in.

Because of the extremity of both her situation and her reaction to it (at times she is almost a woman possessed, so strong (and irrational) is her desire to remain on the plantation) Maria is somewhat unknowable as a character. We don’t really get to see many aspects of her. That said whenever a little moment at which she can give Maria a bit more depth, make her a bit more rounded, comes up Huppert grabs it with both hands. There’s nice shading in her relationship with her husband; a relationship that has that easy comfort redolent of a long marriage and Huppert’s sharp edges are allowed to come through in a scene with her layabout son (Duvauchelle). It’s a great performance, and another object lesson in how, even with relatively little to work with (and notably, given how long she’s on screen for, less dialogue than you’d expect) a great actor like Isabelle Huppert can give you a rounded, intricate, interesting character.

Quietly spectacular as Huppert is, the film that surrounds her has some pretty serious flaws. White Material is set amid arid but beautiful country, and Claire Denis certainly shows off her locations beautifully… when she can keep the camera still. I’ve long considered shaky-cam a disease that has afflicted increasing numbers of filmmakers. It can be used well, but too often, as in White Material, I find that it shakes me right out of the story and reminds me of exactly where I am. I can understand why, when we’re on the back of a motorcycle, the camera shakes, but when it’s just a close up shot of someone’s face this constantly jerky handheld aesthetic snaps the illusion for me. It’s a personal taste thing though, and to be fair this is hardly The Bourne Ultimatum.

A more pressing problem is in the film’s structure. It’s not that, despite the (pointlessly) fractured timeline, I couldn’t put the order of events together; it’s that the way we see the story told just doesn’t track. It’s pretty clearly signposted that the bulk of the film is a flashback from Maria’s point of view, and yet there are many scenes, perhaps a full third of the film, to which she’s not privy, and which she’d clearly have no knowledge of. But the fatal flaw is really that the relationships in the film are so sketchily defined. This is a particular problem when it comes to Isaach De Bankolé’s character; a rebel leader named The Boxer. Does Maria know him? If so then what’s their relationship? If not then why is she so relaxed and kind to him when she finds him hiding in her house? Moreover, what’s Maria’s relationship to the conflict, whose side is she on (if any). What’s her relationship to her workers (it seems to take a radical shift late in the film, why)? At times it feels as though these characters are all just floating, disconnected, in the same narrative space.

There are also weaknesses in the writing and the acting, particularly of Maria’s son Manuel. Nicolas Duvauchelle has only about half a dozen scenes, and he seems to have suffered from the editing process, as Manuel is practically a different character scene to scene and his motivations are (but for one scene) murky at best. Duvauchelle doesn’t help matters, giving easily the film’s worst performance in a stroppy, one note display.

White Material definitely has interesting things in it, but sometimes they seem to be deliberately obscured by Claire Denis. Her desire to leave things unexplained undermines her film, and kept me distant from it, despite another remarkable performance from Isabelle Huppert.

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