film 8 of 8

White Material

Film Review by Dean Duncan Oct 3, 2014

This is a powerful movie! Much of that is due to the central performance of Isabelle Huppert, who emerges as some kind of freckled force of nature. Astounding. Huppert is the jewel here, but she is also extraordinarily well set. She is a plausible, quite convincing part of this vivid agricultural setting. It’s beautifully photographed, but we also get more than a smattering of small-holding detail, a real sense of the work, as well as the social and domestic arrangements that attend it. Here lies White Material‘s great irony, of course, because though this character absolutely belongs here, she also, absolutely, can’t stay here. The most difficult, the most damnable thing about colonialism may be that it can’t be dismissed as simply or only punitive/exploitative. And yet there has been so very much of punitive exploitation, so much of the furious resentment that understandably follows, that even decency is obliterated by the resultant whirlwinds.

One of the most admirable effects of Claire Denis’ sure-handed film is how effectively it utilizes a cinematic equivalent to limited omniscient narration. We completely see and know this one character. We also know, by extension, that this one character, as estimable and capable as she is, will be unable to see or know enough. The delimitation of limited omniscience is most effective at representing subjectivity/psychosis (cf. Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, or Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, etc.). It is just as effective at portraying plain human limitation. With this device Denis elicits both an understanding of and great sympathy for her protagonist. By the subtle elaboration of seemingly peripheral details, she also gives us to understand the context in which that protagonist operates. The collision of these two things creates and constitutes the film’s tragedy, which is both clear-eyed and cathartic.

White Material is a story about nations, cultures, institutions. It is also very insightful about our smaller circles. There’s lots of nice, understated, just gradually emerging information about specific family and offspring configurations, which also resonate well beyond the film’s particulars. Its final conclusions are shocking, and dispiriting, mostly centered in the demise of that worthless son. Is this all that our dedicated collaborations and deepest affections add up to?