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White Material (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Special Edition, The Criterion Collection
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In White Material, the great contemporary French filmmaker Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau travail), known for her restless, intimate dramas, introduces an unforgettably crazed character. Played ferociously by Isabelle Huppert (Story of Women, The Piano Teacher), Maria is an entitled white woman living in Africa, desperately unwilling to give up her family’s crumbling coffee plantation despite the civil war closing in on her. Created with Denis’ signature full-throttle visual style, which places the viewer in the center of the maelstrom, White Material is a gripping evocation of the death throes of European colonialism and a fascinating look at a woman lost in her own mind.
New interviews with Denis and actors Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankolé
Short documentary by Denis on the film’s premiere at the Écrans Noirs Film Festival 2010 in Cameroon
New and improved English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film writer Amy Taubin
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Top customer reviews
Isabelle Huppert, as Maria, gives an understated performance; in an interview featured on the supplemental material of this DVD, she explains that Maria does not show any emotion. Maria is described, on the back cover of the DVD, as being "ferocious" and a "crazed character". But after watching Huppert's performance, neither of those descriptions seem appropriate. Maria is tenacious yet impassive; it's as if the high stakes of Maria's situation demand stoicism. It is not until near the end of the film, when her world has collapsed, that we see any evidence of her being crazed or ferocious. Huppert's performance is one of quiet desperation, of internal crumbling, of someone refusing to recognize the harsh reality confronting her. Huppert is a chameleon who blends into the ambiance of any picture she appears in; she achieves this in "White Material" as well.
Christophe Lambert also gives a strong and understated performance as André, Maria's husband, who is afraid and urgently suggests to Maria that they escape the plantation; and yet he is also trapped. The frightening breakdown of Manuel, Maria's spoiled brat son (portrayed by Nicolas Duvauchelle) is another crucial aspect of the film; hs is the primary underminer, who through his destructive actions, initiates and increases the momentum of the downward spiral of the plantation. In the final twenty minutes of the film, Maria puts on a pink dress, which functions as a metaphor for her fragility. The score by Tindersticks, composed specifically for this picture, provides a moody, alternative counterpoint that underlines the atmosphere of desolation. Highlights of the supplemental material of this DVD include interviews with Claire Denis, who I found to be compelling in person; and with Isabelle Huppert (that I already mentioned), in which she discusses her character Maria.
I have not seen any other pictures by Claire Denis, and so I cannot compare this film to her other work. After seeing "White Material", I would classify her as a documentarian of a brutal hyperreality, which manifests in "White Material" as the death and destruction that moves like a wildfire across the countryside to devour the Vial coffee plantation and the world of Maria Vial and her family. Based on the strength of "White Material", I am interested in seeing Claire Denis' other films.
Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Any Resemblance To A Coincidence Is Accidental"
`White Material' tells the story of Maria Vial, a woman running a coffee plantation in South Africa during civil unrest. As violence closes in around Maria and her family, she balks at the cautions directed at her and continues to persist in her everyday affairs, despite beings met with opposition from all fronts. The scenario definitely plays with her sanity, especially as the war surrounding her starts to take devastating effect on those she loves and tries to protect. With her husband turning on her and her son delving into his own state of madness, Maria is forced to fight alone, but her fighting spirit can only take her so far.
All is lost.
Instead of dampening the film with details that take us out of the story in an attempt to expound upon it, Claire Denis takes a more simplistic approach, allowing the impact of the characters themselves to envelope the audience. As some have already mentioned, there is no backdrop given here. We are simply dropped into a situation and left to fend for ourselves to make heads or tails of it. That could have been a very bad thing had the direction not been so sharply effective. Instead of feeling confused and or befuddled, Denis paints a rather straightforward picture that needs to backstory to feel intimate and provocative. The lack of detail leaves a lasting stain of chaos that effortlessly soaks into the fabric of the tale being told.
Atop the brilliance that is Denis (her directorial hand is so magnificently used to relay emotional relevance, especially in sequences of distilled tension such as that breathtaking scene between Maria's son and the two young boys), the actors here all make a splash, especially Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert, who plays her son. Huppert suppresses the madness brewing within Maria with such frenetic tension. You can feel it itching beneath her skin. Lambert is flawless in his transition from apathetic to completely barbaric, and it never once feels betrayed by inaccuracy. He feels completely authentic from start to finish.
Some have found the lack of detail or the shifting timelines and the unresolved nature of certain plot developments to be a deterrent, but I find them central components to the creation of a film that has lodged itself in my mind, visually and emotionally, and continues to dwell there. There is a mystery that comes from a lack of complete understanding, and while some films demand answers to sell their themes and messages, `White Material' is the type of film that can thrive off of audience interpretation of events, and the suddenness of the films conclusion is a spectacular way of making the audience work for an answer; work for their own cinematic satisfaction. Contemplation and meditation will follow a work as staggering as this one, and it is for that, that I simply cannot recommend this film enough.
It stays with you, and will haunt your dreams.
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Claire Denis has a whole lot to say about Africa, it seems.Read more
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