Monday, April 25, 2011

International: White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)

Claire Denis is a major figure in contemporary French cinema and the international film festival circuit.  I'm particularly fond of her 1999 film, Beau Travail, which is almost abstract in its narrative and visual style.  I'm also a fan of one of her lesser known less admired films, Trouble Every Day, which is, for lack of a better description, an art-house vampire movie with a perfectly creepy performance by Vincent Gallo.

She is perhaps best known for her 1988 film, Chocolate, which is also set in Africa, where Denis spent a part of her childhood.  With White Material, we get both a personal drama of a family falling apart as well as a political drama of a country veering toward civil strife and violence.  What I liked about White Material was the degree of ambivalence the film had toward the main protagonist Maria (Isabelle Huppert), who wants to hold on to the family coffee plantation long enough to reap one last coffee before violence takes over the region.

On the one hand we admire Maria as she fights to keep what is dear to her, but on the other hand she seems to be oblivious to the social and political privileges that gave her family the plantation in the first place.  Her single mindedness is both admirable as she tries any means to keep the plantation going, but also contemptible as she recklessly risks the safety of herself, her family and her employees.  And she seems oblivious to the possibility that the conflict itself may be a consequence her post-colonial privileges.

As with many Denis films, the visual style here is often absolutely gorgeous, but the style never distracts from the small intimate qualities of the narrative.  Instead there is always a state of relative unease because one is never quite sure whether the surrounding environment is one of tranquility or potential violence. 

White Material (Claire Denis, France, 2009, 105 minutes)
Netflix: Writer-director Claire Denis returns to Africa -- her childhood home and the site of her 1988 film, Chocolate -- to spin this tale of a country torn apart by civil war, as African soldiers force French nationals to abandon their land. At the center of the story is Maria (Isabelle Huppert), a white woman who ignores her family's fears and steadfastly refuses to leave her coffee plantation. Isaach De Bankolé and Christopher Lambert also star.  Netflix link.

In addition, Netflix Watch Instantly has Denis' previous feature, 35 Shots of Rum.  I haven't had a chance to see this yet, but I'm putting in in my queue and I'm looking forward to it.

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France, 2007, 100 minutes)
Netflix: This heartfelt slice-of-life drama by filmmaker Claire Denis tells the story of widower Lionel (Alex Descas), a train driver, and his grown daughter, Sophie (Mati Diop). The two spend most of their time together, but change is in the cards. A neighbor (Grégoire Colin) becomes attracted to Sophie, a family friend retires and Lionel tries to maintain a friendship with his ex-girlfriend (Nicole Dogue). Netflix link.

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