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3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 19 January 2011
White Material is vague,obtuse,brooding,inexplicable,lacking psychological detail or narrative structure or plotting dynamic.Entering into a dreamworld of image and sound impressions, we read from the characters and pick up from the landscape the clues we need from the montage of concrete impression and abstract manouever.From the opening running dogs caught in the headlights to the dead body of the rebel leader caught in the torchlight we enter the oneiric door of a disturbing realm.We are in a perpetual present,both timeless and modern,in an unnamed African Francophone country.Isabel Huppert(Maria) runs a coffee plantation for her family,ex-husband, father-in-law,son.Stubbornly, blindly wanting to harvest and process the coffee beans, in the face of civil war,despite the fact her farmworkers are fleeing for their own survival,that her son is bone-idle,her ex-husband(Lambert) wants to leave,her father-in-law just wanders around,not wishing to leave.Things are left unsaid,or we pick up from two native speakers or a rebel DJ that the party is over for white people:"no more drinking cocktails on the verandah". Their farms and possessions are `white material',superficial to the needs of the African people, in the escalating civil war between government militia and wandering child soldiers and rebel gunmen.

Unfolding in flash-backs as Maria scrambles to make her way back home on the back of a bus.Huppert plays her part with steely magnificence and physical perseverence. Maria is determined to stay and with the help of local villagers, carries on alone to manage the harvest,in an attempt to bring the coffee to market.The dehumanising force of violence sweeps everybody up in its psychotic force,especially the troubled Manuel(Duvauchelle),Maria's son.At the centre of the maelstrom is the brooding figure of Boxer(De Bankole),who is wounded,on the run,bleeding away into legend.He's the rebel leader.Hiding out on Maria's farm.This is a journey into the heart of darkness,in a vision of African-set apocalypse.Raw, unfocused,with no coherence,but a fluid logic of consciousness as it experiences collapse and chaos.We experience a world with pitiless intensity: "how being white in Africa gives you a special status, almost a kind of magical aura. It protects you from misery and starvation. But although it can protect you, it is dangerous too. This is what Maria has to learn. The danger for Maria is that she thinks she belongs in Africa because she is close to the land and the people. She cannot return to France because she thinks that it will weaken her. But she learns that she doesn't belong in Africa as much as she thinks. For many white people in Africa this is the reality(Denis)."The sound track by Tindersticks is mesmerizing.The film captures the white colonialists' guilt and bad faith,but also their passionate longing to stay as they are caught in the middle of an African civil war.The rhythm of the film strikes you and the blistering,dry,dusty yet beautiful landscape.
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It was great to catch another film by the talented French director Clair Denis, and starring the very gifted Isabelle Huppert. Her stunning first film "Chocolat" made in 1988, which I have also watched recently, was a revelation that enticed me into watching her bewitching portrayal of life in the Foreign Legion "Beau Travail". Whilst I personally don't believe that it quite achieves the skilfully constructed nuances of these films, it is a very compelling film never the less. Clair Denis goes back to a subject that she understands so well, and explored to such powerful effect in "Chocolat", the white mans alienation in Africa. Brought up in colonial Africa she understands what it is to be a "Stranger in a Strange Land". The first reviewer is correct to draw comparisons with Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". Denis's Africa is the same white mans graveyard that Conrad so graphically wrote about, although interestingly Denis has based her film loosely on nobel prize winning author Doris Lessing's book "The Grass is singing".

The story concerns a white coffee growing family caught up in a stereo typical Central African civil war, of boy soldiers and arbitrary killings, where life is getting cheaper by the minute. The country might be Rwanda or Sierra Leone. It is clearly filmed in the same area as "Chocolat", which I believe was Cameroon, an old French colony. Most of the whites, sensibly seeing the writing on the wall, have left the country, but this family headed by family patriarch Michel Subor and supported by his daughter in law Isabelle huppert stubbornly ignore the possible fatal consequences of staying. This is certainly not so far fetched as it seems. Many whites stayed on in the Belgian Congo long after after their situation had become untenable. Michel Subor provides a monolithic Brando like presence, who gives us a very "Apocalypse Now" moment towards the end of the film. Old Lord Greystoke himself Christophe Lambert, is actually very good as Subor's realist son. Both he and father are Africa born and bred, but still sadly have no place in the new order. Huppert is superb as Lambert's wife who steadfastly refuses to face facts, when her world is crumbling all about her. Isaach De Bankole, whom Denis used to such good effect in "Chocolat", does not get enough screen time to make a real impact as a revolutionary icon.

The films treatment of building tension is expertly handled, using imaginative film angles to aid in cranking this up. Violence is amply conveyed, without having to resort to the usual gouts of blood so beloved by film makers. The film to quote Herman Melville has " A polar wind that blows through it and birds of prey that hover over it". The clammy sense of foreboding is all consuming. This certainly isn't the same dark continent recalled in "Out of Africa" and "Hatari". It is thought provoking and disturbing. Clair Denis makes it clear that the white man is merely a tourist in Africa, and those heady inglorious colonial days when the likes of Cecil Rhodes cut a swathe across Africa, are now but a crumbling memory. With the ongoing situation in Zimbabwe, the film is very much relevant for today, and no doubt tomorrow. I like Clair Denis, she is a damn good film maker. I don't suppose she would be too concerned if the renowned Bob Salter, (Captain Spindrift) didn't like her. But I do, so there! An excellent film that is well worth a watch. A good book to read concerning Africa's colonial past is "King Leopold's Ghost", which I found very illuminating. The films extras contain interesting interviews with Denis and Lambert.
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on 7 July 2013
Somewhere in White Material there is a good, edge of seat drama waiting to get out. The problem for me was that we join the action in the middle and are then told the events leading up to that point in a series of flashbacks which are confusing at best and impossible to follow at worst. The story of a French woman determined to bring in her coffee harvest despite the wide scale chaos of a rebel uprising in the surrounding area is a good one, but the leading lady seems impossibly disconnected from the very real danger she and her workers are facing. Could anyone be so naïve? She repeatedly has guns pointed at her but still continues to do the mundane - go to the bank, visit the chemist, collect her workers. Surely she would be battening down the hatches or accepting the offer of a flight out of the area for her and her teenage son and husband?

The son has a complete meltdown, shaves his head and throws his lot in with the rebels. His leap from lazy lie abed teen to shaven headed thug is so quick that it is hard to believe - we needed to know more about his basic character (he is apparently not 'fully baked' according to the local Mayor and family friend) for this transformation to be acceptable.

There are points during the film where the only way I could tell whether I was watching present day action or a flashback was by the dress worn by the central character. The film has an excellent idea - the child soldiers, orphans swept up by manipulative and charismatic rebel leaders are chilling in their gun carrying innocence (they rob a farm house, carrying guns as big as themselves, but when surprised, they run away, holding hands like the 8 year olds they are) and the whole white people making money in poor former Colonies is an excellent one for a drama.

Sadly, the script for this was just too difficult to follow.
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on 7 November 2011
I must say I was the only one at home who liked it depsite it's long silences, it's lack of subtelty, it's lack of logic or explanations too. But it must be said that this is a 15 plus film, killing is shown with no adrenaline to justify it and it is gory. The female character lacks inner logic, she is blind to all around her and her reaction at the end I still don't understand. The images stay with you and hurt.
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on 5 January 2011
I had read many positive reviews of this movie. In addition, I am a great fan of Isabelle Huppert's work, so I looked forward to watching this movie. I particularly liked Claire Denis' non-chronological storyline. It's hard to tell whether this I. Huppert's most brilliant performance ever, but I. Huppert always gives outstanding performances.

From the DVD, I learned that the genesis of this movie came from I. Huppert's idea of making D. Lessing's "The grass is singing" into a movie. (C. Denis found it complicated to film and came up with the script of "White material").
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on 18 December 2011
Set in a former French colony where a French peace keeping force is withdrawing from and there is a serious insurgency happening. However the owner of a coffee bean farm is refusing to leave and is determined to get the harvest in. Despite the fact that she gets no help from her son, people are reluctant to work there and there are insurgents nearby.
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on 9 January 2014
This film's strength lies in it's accurate depiction of what it's like to be in an African country on the verge of its descent into anarchy. An excellent cast and tight direction keep you involved in the tale as it unfolds. The blu ray disc this reviewer used presented the location with amazing clarity. This is not for those who want a Walt Disney finale in their films, however for those who want a gritty portayal of what it's like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time it is a film to add to your collection.
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on 8 July 2016
This should have been a better film. Unfortunately, the central performance, although somewhat mesmerising leaves everything else in the shade. The overall atmosphere and many of the depicted events were harrowing and I had to watch the film in segments. The black actors were marginalised and one dimensional on screen, and as this story was about life in Africa this, to me, was disappointing.
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on 25 January 2011
Having just seen this film, I share some views below concerning the shortcomings of this opaque film. I put off seeing it as I feel Isabelle Huppert is beginning to grate by playing too many parts where her character is vague, self obsessed, irrational, and ultimately, rather mad. The previous film she made, where she was unable to leave her home when a four lane highway was built beside it, was for me, her worst example, but this comes close.
Her method gives her characters an unrestricted freedom to respond to situations in a way that I simply can't relate to, or find plausible.
I don't deny she is a fine actress, who holds my attention, but ultimately I feel alienated.

The film has a menacing, and compelling atmosphere that stays with you, but the to-ing and fro-ing of time feels like a forced device to detract from the lack of plot and honest character development. Finally, with it's bizarre and abrupt ending, I came away frustrated.
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on 11 January 2013
Stunning film on all levels, Isabelle Huppert is just mesmerising to watch as she doggedly tries to carry on as normal in the face of the mounting signs of frightening and inevitable changes taking place.
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