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White Material

I would love to sit down with Claire Denis and ask her whether she wants her audience to like Maria Vial (Isabelle Hupppert, fabulous as ever). I hope the answer is “no”, because I thoroughly despised her.

My reading: Maria has plenty of guts but is completely devoid of brains upon deciding whether to abandon her coffee plantation when the civil war rebels in an unnamed African state are approaching. She is closing her eyes to the atrocities happening around her, pretending that she is basically a local and nothing can happen to her (ignoring the fate of the locals getting mutilated and killed all around her). She is, in this attitude, maybe the prototypical white settler in black Africa of the colonial/pot-colonial transition period, she is able to lie to herself to a degree that is astonishing, and whatever ill fate will come upon her and her family (by the way: if anyone ever wondered whether Christopher Lambert made another movie after Highlander – here comes the answer) she will blame it on somebody, to be sure, but she will not be able to understand that the only person to blame is herself. She does not understand that she is sacrificing her family and employees for the sake of some stolen property garnished with some principles. Almost everybody in this film is right, only she keeps being ignorant and wrong.

Alternative reading: a woman with big heart and love for the country she lives in and where her son was born is not afraid of the political turmoil, but firmly stands her ground, unwilling to leave those behind who have been entrusted upon her.

Now … whether this is a very good or an utterly ridiculous movie seems to almost completely depend on which of the narratives the author had in mind. I accept the proposition that both these readings can be part of the same story, but I had the slight feeling that I was supposed to accept the second one – which made me cringe. I hope it’s not the case, and the interpretation that Maria Vial is basically an out-of-control lunatic is not just one I am reading into it.

Independent of this, the film is very strong in depicting the stark brutality of rebels on the rampage in the African post-colonial states, taking back with force what they believe has been taken from them, in the process dehumanizing whole societies and bringing down the remaining pieces of social order and civilization their country has achieved. An unsettling movie experience, whichever way you lean in the reading of the story.

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