Saturday, April 23, 2011

#560: White Material

(Claire Denis, 2009)

Despite the fact that Claire Denis has returned to the Africa of her childhood throughout her career, I can't help but group White Material in with other White Protagonist/Black Africa movies, the kind Hollywood seems to churn out every holiday season. This is pretty unfair, because those films are about fundamentally African stories, whether it's the diamond trade in the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Blood Diamond or Idi Amin's rule in the James McAvoy-starring The Last King of Scotland. The genre isn't exclusive to African subjects, with the most notably blatant Windtalkers - in which Nicolas Cage anchors a film that is actually about the role of Navajo marines during WWII - coming to mind first (director John Woo literally said he needed to have a white protagonist in order to get the film bankrolled), closely followed by Oscar-winning films like Glory and Dances with Wolves. All of these films are intended to be both more commercial and more relatable by focusing on a white person usually "discovering" the story or message of the film along with the audience - a method I both understand and generally reject as condescending towards the intelligent viewer.

White Material isn't like those films because it isn't about Africa throwing off the chains of colonization, but is instead specifically about the experience of one white woman in particular who felt just as connected to the land as the Africans that surrounded her. The film takes a rather negative view towards its protagonist, to the point where we actually have to question her sanity quite often as the film careens towards its inevitably pessimistic finish. And yet I had a hard time engaging with the movie because it was so hard to sympathize with this totally misguided dumb white lady who didn't know when to cut her losses and get the fuck out of Dodge. Ultimately, I wanted to know the story of the black Africans in this unnamed country much more than I cared about this woman or her crazy family. In this way alone, the film reminded me of those less admirable films that center on a usually bland and uncomplicated white character meant to be a way in for people who are unwilling to see the world from a different perspective.

Certainly, White Material is both far more technically accomplished and deeply unsettling in its complexity than any of those films. The score of the film, created by the British group Tindersticks, is definitely my favorite element here, but the movie is shot, er, not beautifully - let's say correctly. But having just watched the far-superior Coup de Torchon, I feel the comparison in terms of the relationship between French colonials and their surroundings both socially and politically makes White Material seem like old territory being retread. Having Denis in the collection is worthwhile, but White Material can't measure up to her other work, and falls somewhere in the middle of the pack with regards to the Criterion/IFC releases to date.

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