This review can also be read at The Amherst Student.
The term “art-house film” is often bandied about in discussions of cinema without any real definition of what exactly the phrase is supposed to mean. It is a distinction that even the most casual film-goers can make on an individual basis: we instinctively know that a movie like Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass” belongs to the art-house, whereas “Megamind” most certainly does not. But how do we know? It’s not solely the production values – otherwise “Paranormal Activity” alone would’ve funded my local indie theater for the next 4 years. It’s not the presence of brand-name Hollywood stars – else what is George Clooney doing handsomely brooding in “The American”? It’s not even the presence of *gasp* “serious” themes – films like “The Dark Knight” and “The Social Network” have shown that critical thinking is not yet outlawed from the multiplex.
No, the disparity between classical and art-house cinema lies in their attitude toward the story. When you sit down to watch a major Hollywood studio production, the filmmakers want you to suspend disbelief regarding the filmic nature of what you’re watching; that is, essentially, to forget that you’re watching a movie. That’s not Daniel Radcliffe on screen – it’s Harry Potter. On the other hand, the art-house film would rather you overlook the story, and focus on the images. The narrative of an art-house film may not make logical sense according to traditional concepts of continuity, so we must constantly challenge ourselves to find meaning elsewhere: why show us this shot? Why now? A clue, a clue, my kingdom for a clue!
Claire Denis may be one of the best filmmakers alive to examine on this issue. The master French director has now accumulated two decades’ worth of intoxicatingly disjointed work, from her stunningly poignant and subtle debut “Chocolat” (NOT the Johnny Depp film that you’re thinking of right now) to the moody meditations of “Beau Travail” and “The Intruder.” No one film by Denis is quite like the others – they are joined solely by a common concern for immigrants, exiles and colonists, and a consistently opaque method of storytelling. Her latest (and arguably her best) film “White Material” is no different, approaching the harrowing tale of a French family caught in the middle of a civil war in an unnamed West African nation almost entirely through the unsettling atmosphere evoked by her beautiful images.
Take the film’s opening sequence. Time feels out of place as we float from one shot to the next: a flashlight plays over a dead body; a half-naked young man is intentionally trapped inside a burning building by several soldiers; a middle-aged white woman clambers on to the back of a bus filled with Africans. Are these flashbacks? Flash-forwards? The very idea of moving back and forth along a linear narrative seems inapplicable. Denis is presenting us with a living tableau, various poses that somehow strike straight to the heart of racial tension and politics surrounding second-generation colonists, permanently made foreigners in their own home.
Don’t allow me to make this film sound more frustrating than it actually is. We do learn who these people are, in time. The white woman is Maria (an extraordinary Isabelle Huppert), who manages the family coffee plantation although it technically belongs to her ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor). Despite dire warnings and the constant urgings of her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert) that the clash between rebels and the local government has made the area too dangerous to stay, Maria steadfastly refuses to return to France. Though her skin may be a different color, she clearly considers herself to be as “African” as anyone else; the plantation is her home, and she has poured her sweat and tears into it. She won’t let anyone take what she has.
It seems an understandable position to take, even a potentially admirable one after Maria’s query, “how could I display courage in France?” That is, until Denis confronts us with the horrific violence and insanity of the war, and we release Maria’s stubbornness may be her own form of madness. Barely organized child soldiers run amok in the local village, searching for the rebel leader (Isaach de Bankolé), a stoic but ultimately powerless figure. Maria’s own son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), stuck in a country that is his home but doesn’t like him, is aimless and indifferent, traits that lead him to a shockingly unexpected but entirely plausible transformation. Courage means nothing in place like this; this world is too irrational, too mysterious to recognize Maria’s impassivity as anything but puzzling.
Considering her own African upbringing, Denis was obviously well-suited to tackle the sensitive debate of heritage raised in “White Material.” The battle between blood and birthplace is hammered home here in remarkably visceral fashion: as always, Denis works with her cinematographer (a new collaborator this time around in Yves Cape) to create one of the most tactile visual experiences you’ll ever receive in a movie theater. In an early scene, a helicopter passes over Maria, and the cloud of red dust kicked up by the vehicle’s flight is positively smothering. Meanwhile, a suitably haunting and atmospheric score is provided by Stuart Staples, who also composed the eerie accompaniment to “The Intruder.”
Denis’ goal here appears to be to capture a certain feeling of discomfort, and whether or not you can follow every step of the plot is relatively inconsequential, so long as you remain constantly on edge. There is no reveling in the sight of a familiar face or a particularly flashy line of dialogue here. There is only the landscape, so imposing in its beauty, the characters, so fragile in their humanity, and the audience, left to confront it all.
Welcome to the art-house.
Now playing in (where else) art-house theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars