White Material is a film about a French woman trying to hold on to her coffee plantation while a civil war rages around her in an unnamed African country. Everything around her is in shambles, the country, the plantation, her family and perhaps even her own brain but she has found something to ground her to reality: saving the coffee harvest. Her work crew is continually quitting and her ex husband is trying to sell the plantation out from under her and through most of the movie, her son just sleeps and lazes about.
Isabelle Huppert is phenomenal as Maria. Her focus and total submersion into her role blew me away. I found her thoroughly engaging throughout the film and her plight felt real. That's a real gauge for me. Does a character's plight feel real? In this case everything feels shockingly real, especially Huppert's performance. I was also pleasantly surprised by Christopher Lambert's turn as Maria's ex husband. Where have you heard the name Christopher Lambert? From watching Highlander, nerd. His exasperation and realization of the danger of their situation is visceral and affecting. Their adult son, Manuel undergoes a strange transformation during the film that I'm not sure I enjoyed as overtly as the other two main performances. By film's end he has basically joined the group of child soldiers in their random destruction and random pill popping. It is a strange character arc but interesting nonetheless.
Even with the amazing acting in the movie I felt like the real star of the film was the cinematography. I felt as though I could have watched this movie without dialogue or maybe without subtitles. It stopped short of Terrance Malick territory but it had some aspects of his work sprinkled through the film. The quiet shots of the coffee plantation and the scenes of the harvesting were beautiful and soothing. These images provide direct contrast to the actions talking place in the film. The band of child soldiers lurking around the plantation are a consistent source of terror to the family whether they are willing to admit it or not.
Even though I was left with a sort of despairing pit in my stomach after the movie, I felt invigorated by seeing such a well directed and and well acted film. Claire Denis lived up to the hype surrounding her for the first time in my eyes and I look forward to what she might do next.