The African soil Claire Denis surveys in White Material is not lush. Crumby, battered, and ultimately scorched, it bears the marks of the release of the kind of bottled-up violence suffusing Chocolat and Beau Travail, the filmmaker's previous works set in the continent of her childhood. Torn asunder by brutal revolution, the unnamed nation has become a battleground between gun-toting rebels and insurrection-squashing militia. Their privilege and lives threatened, European colonials disband—except for Maria (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced French woman who stands fiercely if not wisely in the volatile terrain, determined to bring in the coffee crops in her family's plantation. As Maria repeatedly ventures into town seeking workers, her clan is gradually revealed to be every bit as fractured as the country: Her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) tries to cut a deal with the mayor, her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor) pads around in kimonos like a deposed king, and her beloved teenage son (Nicholas Duvauchelle), unsettled by a brush with young rebels, shaves his head and starts carrying a loaded shotgun. Elsewhere in the plantation, a guerilla leader known as “the Boxer” (Isaach De Bankolé) takes refuge, bleeding from a wound.
It's a testament to the artistic expectations raised by Denis that, after the astonishing fugue of The Intruder and the vibrant intimacy of 35 Shots of Rum, even as strong and stirring a picture as White Material seems comparatively conventional. The source, Doris Lessing's novel The Grass Is Singing, may be too much of an open-and-shut case for the intuitive filmmaker: Tracing white colonial disconnection in a land cracked open by upheaval, Denis goes uncharacteristically on-the-nose in her evocations of conflict, physicality, and madness.
All the same, the beauties are numerous. Denis has always been a superb storyteller, though her question, as usual, is not “Where are we going?” but “What are we seeing?” Working with cinematographer Yves Capes, she has the camera wired to the very pulse of the characters; from the first image of a car's headlights revealing a dirt road full of wild dogs to the disc jockey who broadcasts rebellious manifestos in between reggae songs to the blissful glimpse of Huppert riding her bicycle, this is ethereal, elliptical, sinewy filmmaking. White Material strikes the senses as much as the director's great films, but its lack of mystery ultimately keeps it from lingering like them.