White Material is not as emotionally involving as it is intellectually intriguing. The film is deliberately paced, but one can sense an undercurrent of tension throughout the picture. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the focus lies on mood rather than on conventional, straightforward storytelling. This complex and challenging movie definitely benefits from a second viewing.
Ever since I saw her 1988 directorial debut, Chocolat, Claire Denis has been a favorite director of mine. Her interest in portraying characters and their relationship to one another as well as to geographical locations, primarily on the African continent, while also exploring societal and political issues is one of the things that make her movies stand out in a compelling way. White Material feels like a very personal film for Denis, and that it manages to get under the viewer’s skin is in no small part thanks to Denis’s masterful filmmaking skills.
I am ambivalent about the non-chronological, disjointed narrative. While it effectively emphasizes the puzzling quality of the film—which I appreciate—it is frustrating at times. One can’t help but wonder how the movie would have played had the story been told chronologically.
Cinematographer Yves Cape’s excellent work makes the film look quite beautiful. The location shots—White Material was shot in Cameroon—really help to draw the viewer into the proceedings. Add to that Tindersticks’ appropriately mournful and unsettling music, and the result is a rich atmosphere that arguably plays a major role in the movie.
Isabelle Huppert gives a superb performance in the demanding role of Maria Vial, convincingly conveying her character’s determination and stubbornness. Both Christopher Lambert and Isaach De Bankolé are solid as André Vial and “The Boxer,” respectively. Nicolas Duvauchelle, who plays Manuel, Maria and André’s son, handles the chilling transformation that his character undergoes impressively well.