As Claire Denis' enrapturing White Material moves along its quasi-linear path, one may very well soon find themselves quite frustrated with Isabelle Huppert's Maria and her seemingly self-centered (and quite possibly suicidal) intentions, but no matter how ridiculous this tiny, yet extremely strong-willed (perhaps a bit too strong-willed considering) woman's actions may seem to those of us living in our own insular worlds of self-satisfaction and/or oblivious ignorance (and most of us probably fit into at least one of these two categories) one cannot deny the mesmerizing power that the beautifully dangerous Ms. Huppert, as in pretty much every role we are lucky enough to see her in, has over us once again.
A sort of liberal retelling of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (Coppola's own retelling, Apocalypse Now, hangs over every inch of this film, haunting it from beginning to end) French provocatress Claire Denis has given us her best work since her lone masterpiece, Beau Travail, more than a decade ago - and in typical Denisian fashion, has done it in the most alluringly disorienting manner. Beginning at the end, after certain characters are already dead and others are lost in a world they no longer recognize or understand, we see Maria in the light pink dress that will come to symbolize her eventual undoing, the lithesome, deceptively willowy actresses' surprising sinewy muscles straining with their own brand of symbolism. Then, suddenly, as if on a whim, Denis travels back and forth in time (sometimes layering the flashbacks as many as three deep) giving her audience almost as bewildering a time as she has already given her characters.
Set in an unnamed African nation, in an unnamed time period (though resembling the seventies or early eighties in many ways - especially politically) White Material tells the story of the aforementioned Maria and her obviously vain attempt at keeping her coffee plantation going in the midst of an all-out civil war. A civil war in which both sides, no matter how much they hate each other, have an equal hate for anyone white, or any of their "white material". A civil war in which no whites (especially those of the once ruling French kind) are safe, yet a civil war in which Huppert's stubborn-headed Maria has decided to stay, along with her ex-husband, his father and their twenty-something son whose extremely blonde hair alone is enough to incite violence amongst the gun-toting children's army that has been conscripted into rebel service against their own militia-laden (and just as corrupt) government.
Once the once-lackadaisical grown son goes native (shaving his blonde locks and at one point forcing them down a young black woman's throat - the horror, the horror) and Maria finally loses complete control over her already precipice-dangling situation (and quite possibly her own sanity as well) Denis' film quickly becomes a cinematic march down that proverbial river of Conrad's and into a realm of inevitable and quite unavoidable death. And in the end (Conrad/Coppola still haunting the proceedings in body and in spirit), it is Maria's stubborn stance that brings down her own world, just as the world around her is being brought down by two sides of a civil war wherein there are no proverbial good guys to be found (the penultimate scene of unbridled yet near-silent horror will surely haunt many viewers for a long long time).
Huppert's portrayal of this prideful ex-pat (she cannot go back to France a coward she remarks) with an apparent, yet mostly innocent preconception of entitlement (she complains about the "dirty whites" never considering herself one of them) with the type of cunningly brutal fortitude that has made this now fifty-seven-year-old French icon, the most daring actor working today - hands down. Together with the equally daring Denis, White Material ends up being, despite many of its character's seeming arrogance (or possibly because of it), the best, albeit also most oblique, take on the unbridled, politically charged civil unrest throughout the world today. The horror, the horror indeed. [12/09/10]