White Material - Blu-ray Review

'often shot in handheld shaky-cam where there appears to be no need to do so, the sense of disorientation Denis' style creates is matched only in the story's disparate narratives'

There's no doubting that White Material's racial politics are open to criticism. Claire Denis, a white French film maker, has made a film about white French colonials somewhere in Africa, at a time when the anonymous state is under-going change. There's several problems here which, to some degree or another, viewers may find hard to reconcile.

Firstly, the main arc of the story follows the French family, led by Isabelle Huppert's Maria, whose life on their coffee plantation is falling apart. Denis takes pains to explore the other stories surrounding them (child soldiers, a rebel hero, the government's no-nonsense approach to the resistance) but the balance is definitely in Maria's favour. Is that a problem? Is Maria's story not also a story worth telling? It's a difficult one.

Secondly, the anonymous Africa that Denis sets her tale in is troubling. For those looking for answers in Denis' back-story its easy to discover that the director travelled round various African countries during her childhood. Does this explain it? Unlikely. Will this present a troubling quandary for some who might see the setting as a too-broad generalisation? Quite possibly.

Questions about the film's racial politics aside though, there's just too much going on here to make White Material a resounding success. Often shot in handheld shaky-cam where there appears to be no need to do so, the sense of disorientation Denis' style creates is matched only in the story's disparate narratives. The almost-final shot makes next to no sense because Maria's back story has, by this point, been marginalised in favour of the above elements, of André's (a French-speaking Christopher Lambert) experiences and of Manuel's (Nicolas Duvauchelle) madness. It hangs together but only loosely so, a collection of snapshots of stories, mainly of the film's 'white material', included here in brief and presented to an audience who are asked to fill in the gaps.

That said, the above can be as delightful to some as it is difficult to others. Maria is an interesting character, drawn to stay with her plantation with a determination that seems to circle tragedy from very early on. As a character study, Denis hits pay dirt with Maria and with Huppert whose performance is committed and as morbidly engrossing as a car crash. Lambert is solid as is Isaach De Bankolé, although the latter, who seems like he could be the film's most interesting persona, has his story cut short very early on.

An intriguing, floaty and un-anchored exercise in part-narratives but, by definition, part-narratives will have as many open holes as filled in ones and White Material struggles to get enough topped-up to make this entirely successful.

Look further...

'A candid, ground-level view of post-colonial Africa that subverts the usual ‘white man’s burden’ homilies to go on the attack. Disorientating, confrontational and thought-provoking' - Kinnema.com


  1. I could not wait for the credits on this one. Everything about it annoyed me - a feeling I seldom feel when watching a movie.

  2. I remember your review well. Its certainly a very divisive one; I've had at least two people tell me it was either their film of last year or comfortably in their top ten. I enjoyed parts of it but its far too 'loose' for my tastes.