In White Material director Claire Denis revisits the territory of Chocolat (France-W.Germany-Cameroon, 1988), her first feature, and focuses of the final days of Maria Vial’s (Isabelle Huppert) coffee plantation. The unnamed African country, where the film is set, is in chaos as French peace keeping troops pull out, urging Vial to do the same, and a ‘children’s army’ is closing in on the plantation. So far so typical, in that if focuses on the ‘white’ experience in the colonial landscape, however Denis, who co-wrote the film with Marie N’Diaye, is not sympathetic to Vial, despite the fact that, compared to her feckless husband (Christophe Lambert) and borderline psychotic son, she is admirable in how she never gives up trying to save ‘her’ plantation. The ‘her’ is significant, as one African character says, she produces third rate coffee beans that an African would never drink and, as a colonialist, the land can never be ‘hers’.
Vial argues that she can’t leave the plantation because it is her home but the film suggests that she doesn’t really belong there; Vial’s pale complexion is at odds with the heat of the land. When she shows the workers she’s hired where to sleep, we are shown a hovel whereas she lives in European luxury. The ‘white material’ of the title refers to western goods which have no practical value in Africa; when Vial’s son invites the child soldiers onto the plantation they glut themselves on sweets. Vial, too, is ‘white material’.
Huppert, as usual, is superb in the lead as she impassively, and indomitably, tries to save the plantation which is not even hers. Her husband, with the collusion of her father, is selling it to pay off his debts to a local major. Denis’ ‘second cinema’, that is, art-cinema, style is elliptical letting the audience fill in the gaps. The flashback narrative requires work from the audience that is rewarded in a telling portrait of post-colonial Africa.