• James Rutherford

‘White Material’: A Provocative Tale of Ruination in Post-Colonial French West Africa


Movie poster for the film White Material starring Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert

"White Material" (2009) is a superb and provocative French drama starring Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, proprietor of a coffee planation in modern-day West Africa. After civil war erupts nearby, Maria must scramble to fulfill the final harvest of the season before the region is engulfed in violence.


Residing on the plantation with her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lamber), father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and Andre’s son Jose (Daniel Tchangang), Maria actively strives to keep the her family's meager farming operations afloat. When war between the French military and rebel factions breaks out, and a local DJ urges locals to attack and pillage emblems of French colonialism, Maria chooses to ignore dire warnings to flee—opting instead to push forward with a coffee harvest just five days from fruition.


Co-written and directed by French luminary Claire Denis (“Beau Travail”, “High Life”), "White Material" is an urgent and dire affair, with Huppert delivering an entirely persuasive performance as a strong woman at the very limits of her fortitude and capabilities. A master storyteller, Denis imbues the film with striking shades of beauty, horror and deep reflection, bringing a haunting allegory of colonialism and historical exploitation to full cinematic realization.

 

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