Every ten years or so Claire Denis makes a film about Africa, and each time it signals a shift in her style and outlook. Such subtle markers can be spotted in IFC Center’s upcoming Denis retrospective(November 10-18), an overdue event on the occasion of White Material (opening there November 19), her latest triumph. After working in the 80s as assistant for Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch—with both of whom she shares an acute interest in the effects of transcultural friction—Denis launched her own directorial career with Chocolat (1988), a Jamesian depiction of colonial Cameroon based partly on her own childhood. Though intensely focused on vision and tactility as communication (and barrier) between peoples, the film possesses formal camerawork starkly different from what we now associate with the filmmaker. Separating camera from tripod in followup cockfighting noir No Fear, No Die (1990), Denis and subsequent, indispensable D.P. Agnès Godard have continually made the machine a free-roving, space-devouring instrument of exploration.
And never better than in Beau Travail (1999), her first return trip to Africa and her first masterpiece. Having taken up the perspective of alienated African immigrants in No Fear and the interlocking Parisian narratives of I Can’t Sleep (1994), Denis with Travail brings her preoccupation with universal Otherness and volatile masculinity to a sublime peak, a long-form experiment in laconic impressionism and adaptation that transforms Billy Budd into a study of Djibouti’s primeval desert landscapes and the half-naked bodies of French Foreign Legion soldiers. For Denis, nature doesn’t bring out the beast in man but just the opposite; an adjective like “sensual” is too light to describe the strange, if entirely innate, corporeal desires of her protagonists. From erotic vampire inversion Trouble Every Day (2001) to dreamy one-night-stand tale Friday Night (2002) to cryptic, globe-trotting heart transplant epicThe Intruder (2004), Denis’ films force viewers to feel the blood pumping through her characters’ veins.
Blood pervades White Material—as evidence of social status predicated on racial difference, as the fluid shed to reinforce or exact revenge for such a state of affairs. Set on a continent familiar to Denis yet worlds removed from the swooning ebullience and melancholy of her last decade of work, Material will likely generate resistance, even from some of her admirers. Simply put, it’s her rawest, darkest film, a film in which violent narrative jolts and sanguine and dust-caked hues capture the chaos of an unnamed African country rocked by armed insurgency. As the matriarch of a coffee plantation inherited from her father-in-law and ex-husband, Isabelle Huppert attempts to stay put and run her business even as a wounded rebel leader called The Boxer (Denis regular Isaach De Bankolé) hides out in her mansion and feral child soldiers swarm the grounds. Either oblivious of or stubbornly defiant against ubiquitous collapse—including the psychotic breakdown of her indolent son—Huppert rails against entropy, losing her family in the desperate need to defend her turf. Her identity conflated with the drive to maintain her identity, our heroine’s fate is sealed by refusing to temper a typically Denisian fierceness with that other quality so invaluable to the director’s work: perspective.