Review: White Material

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The Pitch: What price for a cup of coffee?

The Review: Have you ever felt truly compelled to do something, then to see it through to the end? At the moment, I’m trying to lose four stone in weight (56 lbs if you’re an American) over the course of a year. There is a real purpose behind that goal, but it’s also completely arbritray; the Weight Watchers police aren’t going to come round with batons and tasers if I fail. (I hope.) But, having got to 3 1/2 with two months to go, I’ve now slipped back, and am considering more and more extreme diet and exercise plans to ensure I hit my goal. I’ve done well; I could just walk away now, take what I’ve got and continue my slow progress towards an ideal weight. But that’s just not me, I guess.

So you think I’d empathise with Maria Vial (Isabelle Hupper) and her desire to get the coffee harvest in, in the face of strong challenges and compelling opposition? At first, it’s easy to support her plight; while all of her workers decide, in the face of the unrest and uprising, to make a break for it, she’s staying and trying to see it through. She faces two main obstacles; the stubborn refusal of almost everyone else to believe her goal is worthwhile and to support it in any way, and that she doesn’t actually own the coffee plantation, it’s owned by her father-in-law and she’s just running the business. Into that mix are a cowardly Christophe Lambert as the cowardly ex-husband (and how nice to see him again), and both their son and her ex’s from his next marriage, who all serve to add complexity to the task at hand.

Speaking of adding complexity, Vial is also sheltering one of the rebel leaders in the compound, and it’s this that’s symptomatic of the movie as a whole. We’re never given complete motivations for most of the characters, despite the situation they’re all in; there’s always the feeling that while we see events, there’s more to be told if we could but spend more time in their company. This serves to amplify the uneasy tension created by events; when you have to take a gun to get to the shops, it’s bound to be tense anyway, and it’s that tension that gives most of the weight and provides the most satisfying moments. As events start to spiral out of control, inevitably Vial digs her heels in and slowly abandons any rational process. Huppert’s performance is a little one-note, but she does that stubbornness very well and is believable as the last bastion of colonialism as the world crumbles around her.

But director Claire Denis has chosen to chop up the narrative a little – we start almost at the end and then moments from that period are intecut with the remainder of the more linear narrative, and the true inescapable nature of what is to come is clear almost from the get-go. That’s actually a good thing, because it’s this sense of the inevitable that keeps us grounded in the movie, as the character motivations don’t give the audience enough to hang on to in order to remain involved. The final scenes are powerful, but what’s left is a feeling of emotional detachment; while it’s been fascinating to watch the characters moved around like chess pieces, how we get to the outcome always feels slightly less than essential. Maria Vial may have a powerful obsession, but it’s not one that I could ever truly engage with.

Why see it at the cinema: The sense of isolation given by the empty scenery is all the more compelling for seeing it big, making the experience that more effective.

The Score: 7/10

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