This new film is set in an unnamed French-speaking African country in the midst of a civil war.
It focuses on the fate of a white settler family (the “white material” of the title) as their world disintegrates.
Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) owns a coffee plantation. She is unable to admit that things are falling apart.
As the French army leave they beg her to leave with them. She refuses, unwilling to abandon her land.
The coffee crop is just days away from harvest, but the workforce are fleeing on motorbikes as rebel soldiers are moving in, with the government’s forces on their heels.
The rebel army is made up of child soldiers who carry guns that seem too large for them and machetes.
There is a passing reference to what might explain this horror.
The child soldiers are orphans who have seen their parents killed. They are driven by hunger.
But the film is not really interested in exploring who they are.
They are the expression of a world that has morally collapsed.
White Material is a strangely dispassionate film that doesn’t ask us to emotionally identify with any of the characters, with the limited exception of Maria.
The contrast between her life and those of the impoverished villagers she hires is hard to avoid, however.
This is an unsatisfying film that fails to grapple with colonialism and its aftermath is a serious or sympathetic way.
Directed by Claire Denis