Aaron: So I really liked Claire Denis’ newest film White Material. I think it’s totally in keeping with the best of her oeuvre and is quite beautiful.
One of the first things I was struck by was Denis’ use of color, specifically the color red. In the second scene, where we see Isabelle Huppert out in a coffee field, we are overwhelmed by the color (she has red hair and the earth is red). Red continues to come up a lot – it becomes a rather leitmotif for Huppert’s character (we see it later with the red coffee beans and the bloody head of the goat she find in her basket). Clearly Denis is telling us that this woman is associated with blood.
Through most of the film we think this color and blood symbolism is purely about her situation as a white woman in Africa (reminding us of the bloody colonial past of the place or of the possibly bloody fate that awaits her if she does not flee her farm). Ultimately though, the last scene shows us that this is really a Judith story. Huppert’s character is African, a native, and the civil war boy soldiers who are trying to force her out are the invaders (rather turning a common racial African story on its ear). She has to kill the head of the invading army (well, in this case it’s her father-in-law who is working with the boy soldiers) in order to free her people (her family).
This is a slow-paced film, but not at all slower than Beau Travail, Chocolat or Friday Night. In fact it is richer than those because it has such an interesting and deep story and because the photography is so beautiful. Denis uses beautiful transition shots and plastic images (in a true Russian Avant Garde way) to tamp down the story and keep it moving along.
Alex: I don’t disagree with your description of the movie and its merits. Indeed, for my money Claire Denis is as visually sophisticated a filmmaker as any alive today. But when her films don’t work, it’s because they get sort of narratively muddy or passive.
Now I will admit I didn’t know the Judith story, so the parallel would never have occurred to me. Having consulted my Bible dictionary, I see what you’re talking about, but I also think, my dear Aaron, that allusion does not great storytelling make. And you have a thing — forgive me — about re-tellings/re-imaginings of Bible stories (A Prophet), which probably reveals to us all some fucked-up aspect of your upbringing.
What is very very interesting about White Material, on its own terms and in comparison with the Judith story, is that Isabelle’s character is, as you say, more attached to the land than the country’s native-born population. It makes you ask: who is the colonizer and who is the colonized? Her stubbornness is fascinating.
But it never quite makes sense. The movie asks us for complicity before we’re ready to give it: we’re just naturally gonna ask, why doesn’t girlfriend get the fuck out!? Again and again she does whatever it takes to save her little microeconomy — she’s like the ruler of a tiny, tiny country — when it just kinda seems like the bitch oughtta leave. Like, who gives a fuck about this coffee plantation?! Even Denis, who has a sentimental spot for the noble working classes, doesn’t pitch Isabelle’s mission as a humanitarian one but an obsessive one, like Quint with the shark.
Any Denis is interesting, and this is a formidable movie. I just found it a bit of a conundrum — and weirdly devoid of emotion, particularly in the face of the (rather labored) tragedy with Isabelle’s fucked-up son.
Aaron: I will totally admit that I have a boner for re-tellings of Bible stories – but it’s because they’re done in such fascinating ways normally. Like the Job story in the Coen’s A Serious Man. These movies aren’t really about the biblical stories, but they mirror something in the tales, which helps to bring out more from the background. I think without the Judith mythology, this is a story about a stubborn woman who won’t listen to reason. It is only because of the Judith symbolism that we understand how she’s tied to her land. She’s tied to her land in an elemental, organic way… the same way the Jews were tied to theirs.
“Who give a fuck about a coffee plantation?” is exactly what the film is about – it’s even mentioned that she’s losing money making coffee and keeping the business going. But the point about Judith, the point about the end of French colonialism, is that there are well-meaning people who are not exploitive who are tied to the land in ways far beyond the color of their skin.
I think it’s also important to compare the whites in this film to the whites in Denis’ last effort in Africa, in Chocolat, where the whites are much more capricious and cynical (the only honorable white person in Chocolat is the young girl who is entirely innocent). This is an answer to that film, saying, “No, not all whites are terrible people. They might be a good force in some areas.” I think this is certainly relevant in present-day Zimbabwe (I kept thinking of the documentary Mugabe and the White African. Just because people are white in Africa doesn not make them evil).
In terms of the emotion, I will say I rather agree that it is less emotional that some films, but I think that’s largely Denis’ style. Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir are almost without any emotion. She draws stories out so far (stretching and stretching the rather simple narratives into amazing visual spectacles) that she ends up with a rather impressionistic gaze on feelings. I also think she interestingly passes a lot of the emotional content to the cinematography (inserting beautiful landscape shots) and the actors (Huppert conveys so much emotion with a simple look on her face) rather than through specific plot points. This again is a rather impressionistic touch – and, I think, is the mark of a brilliant artist.
Alex: You are eloquent on this subject. I need to add that I find Beau Travail loaded with emotion, but it is in exactly the way you describe White Material‘s emotional life: an impressionistic one. (Though I’m sure we can agree both films would benefit from closeups of Natalie Portman crying.)
I have much Denis to catch up on, but she is doubtless a great artist (I’m also a fan of I Can’t Sleep). Because she’s a woman she’ll never win an Ira, but we should figure out how to give her a lifetime achievement award or something. (We can wait another decade or so. She should be old and perpetually Ira-less when we do it.)
Alex: Oh, and you’ll hate me for this, but I actually don’t like Isabelle Huppert. Maybe it’s because I’m threatened by strong women, but I sort of think she’s the Nicole Kidman of France: incredibly beautiful and loved by the camera, but sometimes not acting so much as getting a distant look in her eyes and letting her mouth hang open ever so slightly.
It may be because I associate her so strongly with Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher — it’s almost her Mommie Dearest role — and I kind of despise that movie. It has all of Haneke’s sadism and none of his wit and insight.
Aaron: I do rather hate you for disliking Huppert, who I think it one of the most transcendent actors working today (god – that sounds like sentimental and annoying…shit). (Also, funny you mention Mommie Dearest, because I was thinking about that when I watched and when we discussed Black Swan.) I think she’s great, subtle and deep. You should see the French film called Home. She’s funny in a very gonzo role… and plays Olivier Gourmet’s wife…which is like a movie snob’s film-gasm. A fascinating and under-watched movie (that I wanted to give points to, but I was one of only 12 people to see it at the Cinema Village last year).
I also think you’re wrong about The Piano Teacher. I think it’s deeply interesting and probably stands as Haneke’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. The ne plus ultra of his talent and oeuvre. I think it’s almost too independent and too good to talk about… it’s like defending Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2)… Yes – I just compared Haneke to Shakespeare. Deal with it.
Alex: I know you want to slather your hot Aaron love all over Isabelle’s body, but describing any movie actress as “transcendent” makes you sound way gayer than me. Have you been reading too much Ben Brantley lately?