Monday, 5 July 2010

'White Material' review: A handsomely made, but oddly unfulfilling post-colonial drama...

Claire Denis’ ‘White Material’ comes with many a high recommendation. It placed (joint) 6th in Sight and Sound magazine’s 2009 poll of critics and it was not the only Denis directed film on the list as ‘35 Shots of Rum’ (also released in France last year) was joint 2nd. Jonathan Romney wrote that having two films in the list served to “reassert her position as one of the most avidly followed auteurs in art cinema” and, in the pages of the same publication, Nick James has reserved even higher praise for Denis writing that “there’s no better film-maker working in the world right now.” Given all this praise it is hardly surprising that ‘White Material’ was heralded as the July issue’s Film of the Month. Elsewhere, Peter Bradshaw’s four star review of the film in The Guardian saw him label it her best since ‘Beau Travail’ and called Denis “a poet of mood and moment”.

This puts me in an awkward position as a reviewer - one I found myself in earlier this year with ‘A Prophet’ – in that I am left wondering whether I have the courage to be like the little boy in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes and declare publicly that I can’t see what they are talking about. ‘White Material’ (and to a lesser extent ’35 Shots of Rum’) is a movie I almost hesitate to criticise as I start to doubt whether I understood it at all. “What did I miss?” I ask. I’m sure it’s in there and I scratch my head whilst fighting against my heart in a vain attempt to locate what I am missing.

I start to try I identify what other critics may be seeing: Claire Denis makes films of undeniable beauty and yet they are also always gritty enough so as to escape being called glossy or shallow. They take no particular viewpoint or political stance (at least none that I can identify) and so they can be lauded as non-judgemental and held up as a sort of objective “truth”. They are slow and subtle works, at their finest capable of evoking great joy and sorrow and of being tense and even frightening whilst still being poignant and tender. But time and time again they leave me cold, unengaged and even a little bored.

Why should I be bored? ‘White Material’ is set in post-colonial Africa in the midst of a civil war. There is barbarity and intimidation throughout. There are scenes of graphic violence, which should be all the more shocking by their close resemblance to reality: Isabelle Huppert portrays a woman whose family coffee plantation is under threat in a changing political climate – one which will see her become the victim of a racially motivated attack not too dissimilar from the kind seen in Zimbabwe in recent years (as shown in the documentary ‘Mugabe and the White African’). There are also child soldiers, reminiscent of those in another recent feature: ‘Johnny Mad Dog’. The political relevance of this story and the potential for something more polemical about racism, colonialism and modern Africa are at the route of my frustration with ‘White Material’. It could say so much and yet seems proud to say nothing at all.

Making overtly political films is very much against current critical favour. To confirm this you only need to watch a few interviews with Kathryn Bigelow as she marched towards her 'Best Director' Oscar earlier this year for ‘The Hurt Locker’. In almost every one she declared proudly that the film was A-political and in no way a comment on rights and wrongs of the Iraq war itself. Ever since Michael Moore popularised left-wing political activism in the early part of the last decade (to some making it seem crass), it has been accepted that the best films are not ideological but simply observe an event impartially.

But one of the best articles from the Cahiers Du Cinema that I ever read at university (and to my shame I can not remember its author) discussed how film is always ideological and can not help but be so. In fact when a filmmaker claims that their work is not ideological, instead suggesting that it is a reflection of how the world actually is, what we see is “truth” as they see it: the “real” world artificially constructed by them and shown through their lens. This sort of filmmaking is somehow more insidious and, even, more dangerous. The people who admit they are making a point are at least flagging up that their film is an idea, whereas when Michael Bay makes a sexist, racist, neo-conservative 'Transformers' movie he can call it entertainment and dismiss any political readings of the movie altogether.

I am not for a moment suggesting every filmmaker needs to be Jean-Luc Godard. In fact on this very blog I have lauded several films in the past for their honesty or objectivity ('The Hurt Locker' among them). But to set a film in post-colonial Africa and say nothing about race or politics whilst you are there is not, for me at least, a fulfilling exercise. Perhaps this could be forgiven if Isabelle Huppert did not cut such an unsympathetic and slightly annoying figure as the protagonist. Nicolas Duvauchelle ('The Girl on the Train')is slightly better as her son who, after one encounter with child soldiers, shaves his head begins carrying a gun, clearly now insane. His unsettling presence suggests a threat which never materializes and he is decidedly underused, his motivations never investigated. Christophe ('Highlander') Lambert is the husband and father and is a solid if unspectacular performer, but again has little to do in a film which is content to follow Huppert around as she consistently ignores warnings from workers, family members and the army about the inevitable violence and disaster to come.

The full extent of her ignorance of the situation is apparent when she visits a pharmacy and comments that they have perhaps gone over the top with security, having an armed guard outside. They respond by saying that they fear it is not enough and later we see that they have been murdered in their shop. If the film creates anxiety it is at the realisation that you are following the only character who has no idea what is taking place, or at least a character who is deluding themselves in an attempt to cling to the past. Unlike the real-life Mike Campbell in 'Mugabe and the White African', Huppert does not come across as strong or brave: just stupid.

Her stupidity is not a compelling enough reason to watch what is happening or to care much about it. I can't help but feel that someone like Werner Herzog would have gotten more out of the extremes of this situation and the insanity of these characters and in doing so he would have said something about human absurdity. In Denis' hands I was left to appreciate the stunning photography and feel nothing, emotionally or intellectually. We are not shown the causes of the trouble which is taking place, instead we are just left to watch a piece of apathetic "oh dearism". And that is a tragedy. I am yet to be convinced that Denis is wearing any clothes.

'White Material' is out now in the UK and is showing at the Duke of York's Picturehouse until Thursday the 8th of July. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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