Twenty-one years ago, the wistful, sensory-overloading reminiscences of Claire Denis' semiautobiographical first film Chocolat were bookended by a French girl's trip back to Cameroon, where she grew up as the daughter of a colonial official. Denis' new film, White Material, also returns to contemporary West Africa (an unnamed country), where a tangled French family maintains their coffee plantation, but a few lush patches of landscape can't cover up the irrevocable scorching of home turf. Stripping the air-quotes from Claire Denis' "postcolonial" cinema, White Material is a jarring immersion into visceral political (or perhaps anarchic) reality.
A flash-forward discovers the dead body of a rebel leader played by Isaach De Bankolé, once upon a time the hopelessly devoted houseboy of the Chocolat family; a few days earlier, sun-freckled Isabelle Huppert stays on at her family coffee plantation, defying the French Army as they abandon the unnamed country to national forces, the mostly talismanic rebels, and already scarred and hardened bands of child soldiers.
Like any self-respecting female character in a plantation movie, Huppert's Maria Vial holds to her claim over the land, recruiting a new work crew for the harvest after her old retainers abandon ship—by the time she takes the truck out to make new hires, they've set up a roadblock on the way into town, guns drawn on the driver and passenger side windows and a nonnegotiable fee. Meanwhile, her ex-husband and his father—the plantation is theirs, but Maria manages it with a convert's fervor—maneuver to secure safe passage, and her wobbly son, white but African-born, goes alarmingly native.
White Material descends, as it must, into postcolonial free-for-all-the vacuum, described by V.S. Naipaul and J.M. Coetzee, quickly filled with long-nursed resentments and gnawing hungers. But despite its violence (mostly inches offscreen), the engine of Denis's film is Maria's quixotic, dangerous, impossible love for what she considers, despite the evident opinions of others, to be her home. Partly it's a matter of Huppert's ever-serious, driven performance, but there's also the way Denis has (even without usual D.P. Agnès Godard) of capturing skin tones and textures at one with their environment, like the way Maria, and the afternoon sunlight, sift through baskets of coffee beans.
Though the compressed, hectic time frame and Denis' customary exposition-by-experience narration underserve key relationships and plot turns, Huppert and give White Material a vivid emotional through-line, rendering real and stinging the wounds sustained by a woman who'd do anything to live on in her African home—by the end of the movie, it's clear that she's not the only one.