Crazy White People

Would you like some coffee with your civil war?

Claire Denis is one of the most renowned and prolific female directors in world cinema, but her films are known by few outside of urbane critics and religious patrons of the art houses.  Her surprisingly heartfelt slice-of-life piece about multiethnic Parisians, 35 Shots of Rum, probably would’ve made my top ten list last year had I seen it in time and is a film that deserved a wider audience.  Her latest, the frustratingly non-humanist White Material, isn’t about to win over any new fans or stir up any kind of decent business.  But it will have plenty of people talking.

In an unnamed African country, civil war has broken out.  Isabelle Huppert plays Marie, a French woman who runs a coffee plantation and refuses to leave amidst the anarchy and danger, even after French soldiers beg her and her family to evacuate and all of her laborers abandon their work to flee.  Determined to bring the latest crop in, she hires a weary group of day laborers while her family falls apart and a notorious rebel leader, wounded and hunted, finds refuge in her home. 

Giving the film no historical context is a bit frustrating, but Denis, who has her own tenuous ties to the continent, seems to indicate this could be “Anywhere Africa” and what she displays — the ailing after effects of colonialism, the brutality of civil wars, the inhumanity of using children as soldiers, and the rampant anarchy of a land full of “hot air” is a hellish portrait of her former home. Continue reading

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