19 July, 2010

Review: White Material: White Noise

I went to see this on the strengths of Isabelle Hupert, a fine and at times arresting actress, and the director Claire Denis, whose debut feature Chocolat* also takes place under the shadow of French Colonialism. (*no, not the Joanne Harris somewhat saccharine magical realist novel filmed with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, but an excellent coming of age story which also meditates on race and colonial power).

The film starts with sundry threads, short on explanation, long on images, in an unspecified African country a white woman ignores instructions from a retreating French army to flee her coffee plantation, a wounded rebel soldier looks for shelter, a young white man is locked into an active coffee roasting building by soldiers, child soldiers find a gold plated cigarette lighter, the same white woman tries to get a bus back to her home to her son. By describing this, I've just given you more exposition than you get in the first half hour of the film. Some of the images are haunting, and as the timeline is initially unclear and purposely disordered, they hang over the story as it languorously unfolds. The washed out cinematography and the brooding string soundtrack by Tindersticks, contribute to an atmosphere of oppressive heat and alienation.

This is not an easy film. It is opaque. It is hard to derive the characters motivations, and their relationships are disjointed and steeped in a barely revealed history. Trying to identify with or even fathom the main characters is like trying to tune in a signal on an old AM radio amid louder white noise. The story has the inevitable air of greek tragedy, but paced as a slow burn leading to attendant madness.

Hupert's performance carries us through this, although most of it is sieved through a stoneyfaced determination; with the only crumb of motivation for her possible quixotic efforts to stay and complete the coffee harvest, is that she has "no where else to go". Denis direction is unfussy and keeps the story entirely unsentimental, and it is all the more affecting for it. The pace does occasionally go from a crawl to a halt, but the driving threads of tragedy and Hupert's struggle move it forward.

The perfect downbeat movie for a day of heat and stagnation, but not a first choice if you just want to sit in a theatre for the aircon to escape the heat with some more cheerful escapism on the screen.



Post a Comment

<< Home