Claire Denis follows up her last film, the great 35 Shots Of Rum with this one that focuses on the revolutions that the remnants of colonialism inevitably spawn. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is almost singlehandedly running a coffee plantation in an unamed African country. But things are falling apart with rebels pressing the government. All French nationals are urged to evacuate. Maria refuses to leave, however, believing (or at least she convinces herself) that it will all blow over.
The movie begins at the end. As Maria travels on a bus, she relives the last several days. Caught between the corruption of the government and the erratic violence of the rebels, Maria is persistent in her goal to bring in the coffee harvest. Besides the politics of the narrative, it’s also beautifully filmed. There are quiet scenes of the African countryside, with only the sounds of nature as commentary. In one such, we think we see something. And then it’s clear. Rebel soldiers are ominously coming into the scene.
The title “white material” is a mostly contemptuous epithet used to describe white people and especially their possessions. The things they bring with them and the things they leave behind. And white people have most of the possessions here, which is never a good situation. Director Denis knows of what she speaks, is intimately familiar with the subject of post-colonialism as her father was a colonial administrator, and she grew up in several African countries.
Huppert displays her range to great effect and just seems to get better with age.