A white woman and a black nation are the subjects of Claire Denis’ exotic, lush White Material, a sort of harrowing The Tree of Life with meditation on the nature of god replaced with a careful deliberation on colonial identity. Denis has spent the better part of two decades dissecting the aftereffects of colonial rule with a careful mixture of composed authenticity and poetically floating clarity, rejecting the lo-fi approach of many modern indie filmmakers for a more confrontational form of bile-spewing visual splendor. White Material may be her most harrowing film ever, and its cryptic meditation on the nature of identity in a continent where identity is defined primarily by ownership reminds that the after-effects of colonialism still loom large over African conflict, and they may not only effect native Africans anymore. Even though the whites who still live in Africa may deny it, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.
Denis opens on a black body, half-naked and shrouded in mystery and a harsh white light, lying in a building ready to be burnt to the ground. For most of the film, however, she will tackle the rape of Africa through the perspective of a fly-on-the-wall around a white body, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a French woman who operates a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country which has erupted into Civil War. A Civil War that Vial refuses to acknowledge, and refuses to submit to. There are other figures – Christopher Lambert is on hand reminding us he exists as Vial’s ex-husband – but it is Vial’s film. Or rather, it is Denis’ film to expose the alienated nature of Vial, whose dogmatic fixture on her valid place in Africa – and implicitly, the valid place of her white body in Africa – serves as Denis’ focal point of criticism.
Vial is hurt again and again, left out as prey when the chaos her kind set about the African land finally comes back to haunt her. White Material is, essentially, the story of colonialism ceding nominal ground to black leaders, only for a white woman to refuse her involvement in the transition, or even to acknowledge her role in history at all. She shuns her fellow whites, going so far as to openly criticize them for their colonialist leanings, but she mistakenly believes that her more nominal friendship with at least one black man is some form of legitimatization of her distance from the conflict. She posits herself the white liberal, in other words, assuming her superiority to other whites without ever once considering her own implication in the chaos Africa now lives and dies under. She’s been made a passive figure – Africa isn’t her’s anymore – but she implicitly assumes it still belongs to her in the way she continues to believe she is somehow free from the conflict that hurts so many black bodies around her. She insists that she deserves a spot in Africa, even if her coffee plantation is itself a holdover from colonialism.
More notable than the theme, however, is Denis’ expression of theme, which centers on the dual pillars of star Isabelle Huppert and cinematographer Yves Cape. Huppert gives a commandingly passive performance, rendered a shell of a person who refuses to acknowledge outside conflict at all. Her mulish stubborn commitment to the vestiges of colonialism deadens her, until she has no life left in her body at all; her ghostly pale skin, intentionally placed in pale pink and white outfits, serves as a dual walking metaphor for her own ghostly nature and her role as the specter of colonialism still walking around in Africa.
Cape, for his part, is a discovery, melding quiet flashes of hyper-realism to a larger tapestry of opaque, gliding death that depicts modern-day Africa as an almost surrealist collage of anarchy and emptiness. His masterpiece is that opening shot. In the end, although the figures nominally burning the building are black Africans, the white light shining over the black body is its own reminder of who really scorched the earth, crippled the land, and paved the way for that body to be burnt at all.
Not since Steven Spielberg paid homage to the work of contrarian-minded Stanley Kubrick with A.I. Artificial Intelligence, one of the most fascinating studies in cognitive dissonance and the limits of auteur theory in all of cinema, has a film exposed as much about the hearts of its dueling architects. Yet, when French animation-maestro Sylvain Chomet received blessing to finish an unfilmed Jacques Tati script in his own animated style, the results were not self-contradictory of accidentally self-critiquing, as with AI, but complementary and holistic. Which has the effect of making the result, The Illusionist, out to be a much less stumblingly fascinating and singular work of storytelling-by-shards than the essential cinema of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but Chomet’s fable of aging and the passage of time is its own humble treat.
Certainly, it is a tad more narrative-based than your typical Tati films, which always circled around space, place, sound, and moment more than the interlinking, interstitial nebulae between those moments. Maybe that is why this screenplay was never produced by Tati himself, who apparently wrote it in a fit of desperation regarding his inabilities as a father. A tragedy that manifests in what is functionally a story of father and daughter, although in this case, the roles are played by a traveling musician ousted from big-time halls by the burgeoning rock music phenomenon, and a young teenage girl who adores him and takes to traveling with him as one of his few remaining fans.
Certainly, the film is alive with moments (my favorite is when a custodian returns one of the magician’s rabbits to him and then returns with a rat he believes to be part of the magician’s act). Tati-esque flights of whimsical humanism dot the film, although they belie a brash commentary on aging and the progression of time lurking underneath. The shuffling composure of the aging main character defines him as a man out of time, more an automaton or a zombie than a lively, rabid human being, and the slight, non-verbal ways in which he communicates with the teenager both function as a touching requiem to the power of physical, visual hand gestures (Tati’s great interest as a magician who’s greatest trick was a camera) and a melancholy expression of how little these two figures necessarily know each other.
The real showpiece of the film, however, is Chomet’s animation ,which owes a debt, more here than ever before, to his beloved 101 Dalmatians, the first modernist Disney animated fable and arguably the first work of modernist cinematic animation altogether. Chomet’s hashed-out, watery lines and colors recall the improvisational, jazzy collage of shapes in that Disney film – the first to showcase a new animation technique that was noticeably cheaper and sketchier, and thus require a lighter, less narrative-based story to accompany it. The style is perfect for the similarly low-key, transitive episodes of Chomet’s film, affording a freedom to his sauntering, scribbled-in-the-margins storytelling and hiding the film’s more melancholy qualities so that they sneak up on you like an alley cat.
In the end – in the literal final moments of the film – the melancholy sneaks up on you, humanistically and quietly meditating on fate and age and casting out the old in favor of the new. Before that, Chomet is content with a light fable, for play, rather than consequential storytelling, but the frothy, relaxed vibe of the film is part and parcel with its identity. It is much less challenging that his previous directorial feature, The Triplets of Belleville, and it is a much more classical piece altogether (sometimes to its detriment; an otherwise hilarious parody of rock bands suffers from slightly homophobic, effeminate characterizations and the unassuming story plays a little too heavily with gendered, paternalist roles of father and daughter to ever fully come alive as anything other than regressive, but humanist, children’s fable). Nonetheless, it is lesser Chomet, and lesser Tati, but still tender, gloomy storytelling all the same.