It takes time to get your bearings in a Claire Denis film. Her movies define themselves leisurely, like a landscape fading up from night to dawn to morning. White Material, the remarkable new movie by this French master responsible for three nearly perfect films already (Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, The Intruder), begins with a succession of unsettling fragments: a soldier lying dead in a dark room; a man trapped in a burning building; and a woman, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), running to or from some as yet vague emergency. Broad context emerges soon enough—we are in an unnamed African country verging on post-colonial Hobbesian hell—and so we have some idea of how that soldier came to be there, why that building is on fire, and what Maria is fleeing or chasing, but Denis embellishes these initial adumbrations slowly and carefully, even gently, as if White Material’s escalating chaos could tip over into incurable madness at any moment.
Committed to staying on at her floundering coffee plantation, Maria remains startlingly unfazed by the machete-wielding boy soldiers prowling her property and the mercenary rebels demanding exorbitant tolls just beyond the gates of her vulnerable homestead. Old hierarchies have collapsed, the bottom has fallen out, and while everyone claws each other on the way down, Maria waits for the ground to rise up to meet her, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge, until it is too late, that she is an outsider who happens to be at the center of a war.
Maria’s willful occlusion and sometimes cruel denials—of her own culpability, of her son’s slow slide into nihilism—never register as frigid villainy, because Denis is less intent on probing post-colonial psychology than conjuring a vivid daydream of creeping dread and bound destinies. White Material’s most stunning moments are silent snapshots of the slow motions and still lives that bracket acts of violence: rebels emerging, wraithlike, from a stand of trees; a ragtag militia of children napping in a looted house; a transistor radio squawking in the dirt; bodies prone behind a pharmacy counter. It is almost as if Maria has been cast as the political actor who shall not act, so that this violence, seemingly so arbitrarily dispersed, might have a place to eventually converge. White Material ends where it begins—a figure in limbo, running—and there are still people left alive to follow their loved ones into death, yet I did not want this horrible story to end, not as long as Denis was acting as guide.