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Sunday, June 25, 2017

White Material

Last week the New York Times published an article listing the best films of the century (so far). Why they chose the middle of 2017 to do this, I don't know, but I was pleased to see that I have seen 22 of the 25 films they chose, and the three outliers are easy to catch up with on Netflix.

The first is White Material, by Claire Denis, a director whom I'm fairly familiar. She grew up in Africa, and made the film Chocolat (not the bland one starring Johnny Depp) about her childhood experiences. She was reluctant to return to Africa for another story, but co-wrote a script with Marie NDiaye and directed Isabelle Huppert (the two had never worked together before) about the lingering colonialism there.

Huppert is the owner, with her ex-husband and his father, of a coffee plantation in an unnamed country (though it was inspired by events in the Cote d'Ivoire). Huppert is warned by almost everyone, including the French army, to get out, because a civil war is about to get very heated, and neither side likes white interlopers (they and there stuff are called "white material"). She is stubborn, though, imploring her workers not to leave, as it is only five days until harvest and she thinks the warnings are overblown.

Of course she is wrong, and the film is downward spiral of violence. She has a teenage son, a lazy good-for-nothing, who foolishly allows himself to be robbed (and possibly molested) by boy soldiers with machetes and spears. This triggers in him a volatile reaction. Huppert's ex (Christophe Lambert), goes ahead and signs away the plantation, but Huppert hangs on to the bitter end.

At first I had trouble with the film and it's timeline. It's told in flashback, and there are flashbacks within flashbacks. Eventually that sorts itself out, and we see the hopelessness of the situation--rebels versus army, and one isn't any much better than the other, with white people who have lived there all the lives, but really have no place there. There is also savage violence. Soldiers slaughter children in their sleep, and there is a breathtaking shot by Denis of passports lying on the ground, next to a man's head, and then a pan down to his fatal wound. Efficient, moving, and terrifying.

The more I see of Isabelle Huppert the more I realize she's one of the great actresses of her generation. She hasn't gotten the respect in the U.S. she deserves because she's made very few American films or films in English. Those she has have been monumental flops, like Otto Preminger's Rosebud and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, so she is sensible to be gun-shy.

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