As civil war rages on about her in an unnamed African country, a white French woman refuses to abandon the coffee plantation that has been in her family for years. Claire Denis directs, and the imagery is stunning. Isabelle Huppert is perfect as Maria Vial, who runs the plantation with her ex-husband (Cristopher Lambert). She needs to be fierce and intelligent and deeply in denial of the true nature of her situation, and she manages to channel just the right combination of toughness and vulnerability.
The story itself is told elliptically, and while it starts out realistic, with moments of obscure violence we don't understand until much later, in the end it begins to seem more like a fable. Moments of the film, such as when Maria's son shaves his head and runs wild with the lost boys of the rebel army, feel like something out of Apocalypse Now, or even Lord of the Flies. The viewer's thrown into the midst of the situation, and the narrative moves back and forth between past and present without much in the way of warning. The film's depictions border on surreal in several instances, where you lose track of what is reality or dream or symbol. The "white material" of the title refers, seemingly, to the "stuff" that the whites who flee the country leave behind, that is there to be scavenged, whether by the local armies and leaders who had been supported by an international military presence, or by the hungry young armies that make up the rebellion. More broadly, though, it suggests the influx of foreign capital and foreign military that had enabled this family to feel their position to be unassailable, as the natural order of things.
As I take it the film's power lies precisely in its ability to depict this sense of oblivion, this lack of awareness of time and place, this way in which the main white characters in the film have no clear sense of their participation and culpability in the ongoing conflict around them. They act as if it were something merely happening to them, and as if things should really just go back to "normal" - as if it were normal for a small white family to live in luxury as the owners of a large tract of land, with wealth that comes from the labor of men and women who leave their families behind to serve them, and while the majority population around them is impoverished. Maria is astonished when the local boys exact a toll from her as she drives to town - she knows them, and knows their families after all - but what she doesn't consider is that she knows their families largely as locals who have worked for her, a situation that seemed natural for her because the international military sustained the power structure that ensured their rights to property that had, effectively, been stolen from the locals long before. Even her ex-husband, who at least has the presence of mind to realize that their current situation is untenable and that they need to evacuate, laughs when the local mayor says he could have them arrested. After all, they are old friends, he thinks - not fully aware of how radically the situation has changed. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys" in this film or in the dark situation it depicts - the wealthy Europeans are not themselves directly responsible for the situation they've inherited, and the locals are not wrong to want what they see as theirs.
It's a beautiful film, and I think it's essential that it be done right to get at the subtlety of the look they've achieved here - so it's a good thing this is being released by Criterion. I was lucky enough to catch this in a theater but for those who don't it's lucky that Criterion is releasing this one. Apart from the stark beauty of the imagery, It's also a dark film, that avoids a straightforward and linear narrative in order to challenge and provoke. I expect some will be put off by that, but I found it quite fascinating.