A PLACE TO CALL HOME
French actress Isabelle Huppert has a presence that's at once fragile and formidable. She looks frail and vulnerable though her freckled face and straight, often unsmiling lips speak of boundless, manic determination. So, when in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001) she plays a repressed woman who embarks on a bizarre and terrifying sexual journey, even when you think there's nothing to redeem her, Huppert makes us feel for her self-inflicted misery. In Rithy Panh's The Sea Wall (2008), she's a matriarch in French Indo-China struggling to keep her family together and her farmlands from being breached by the sea. Again a rigid, fierce woman defined by her stubbornness, she invests her character with great emotional depth.
On a similar note, Huppert essays Maria Veil in Claire Denis' White Material, this time set in an African country once occupied by France, now fast descending into chaos. At the beginning of the film we see her holding on to the back of a bus, her skinny frame contrasted with steely, muscular arms strong enough to hang on to a precarious, moving vehicle, her face a picture of dogged resolve as she surveys the untamed, dusty landscape that passes her by.
Denis cuts back and forth in time, but not in any particular order and sequences are scrambled as randomly as the shocking events that unfold in the film.
Maria is a coffee farmer who has lived in this country all her life. The retreating French army warns her that if she doesn't leave with her family immediately, her life is in grave danger. She refuses to budge, even when her workers run away. As her foreman says, "Coffee is coffee. Not worth dying for." The pharmacy in town where she's a regular visitor now has an armed guard at the door (not enough to protect anyone, you later discover).
Maria's husband (Christophe Lambert) is brokering a deal with the local mayor (on the sly) who now lives in a huge European mansion and has his own private army for protection, to sell their land in exchange for freedom. Her son, Manuel (the only person Maria can't be firm with) spends his time lounging in bed refusing to do anything.
Meanwhile, a fierce and senseless war is raging between the army and rebel troops. The search is on for a dreaded rebel leader called Boxer who the young boys and girls of the revolutionary movement look up to. It's heart-wrenching to see little kids wielding guns bigger than their own frail bodies popping all manner of pills stolen from the pharmacy. But in a place where life appears to have no value, such scenes are to be expected.
The locals squarely blame their former colonial rulers for this state of anarchy and contemptuously refer to the few Europeans left on the land as 'white material'. When they enter their secluded havens (bathtubs, air-conditioning and all) in the middle of an impoverished nation with its seductively dangerous landscape, they marvel at the luxury while spitting on it at the same time.
Insanity comes easily in such a volatile situation as Manuel's tragic case suggests. Only Maria somehow tries to plod on in her foolish mission to get someone to harvest her coffee crop and keep her work going like nothing else matters. Perhaps there's a fatalism to her bravado too -- when you've got nothing left, you've nothing to lose. It's a vision of hell, this war-torn paradise. But it's the only place she knows as home.
For such a violent and politically charged film as White Material, its remarkable that Denis manages to invest it with a poetic quality. It isn't just gut-wrenching, its also beautiful. No small feat, that.