Thursday, February 24, 2011

White Material (2010)


There have been few moments in my life where I have felt indescribably frustrated while watching a movie. More often than not a bad movie can be easily forgotten, or turned off when they have overstayed their welcome. It is the movies that show such great promise and still fail continuously that create this most maniacal feeling. It is with a mixture of sadness, and resentment, that I now bring the discussion onto White Material.

For going on a month now, I have been sitting on this review. Waiting for something to spark, some sentiment of intellectual reasoning to present itself in a manner of describing my feelings towards this film, but I really have nothing. It is simply a testament to things I dislike about films. Indistinguishable, jumpy, full of self-apprehension washed out by even more self-indulgence, White Material is a movie that has all the frontal appearance of an art-house piece wrapped in subtext. However the more I step back, the more it seems to me that this is a firm case of many parts which seem captivating in their own right, but when combined they add up to a whole lot of bupkis.

The reason: no direction. I'm not saying Claire Denis did not Direct the movie, rather that it always feels as if the scenes are being forced, and not flowing. How does this feeling come about? Intentional narrative editing. White Material is told a-linear, overlapping past and present with no real distinguishable transitions to label where we are at any particular time. To make this even more difficult, Denis has opted to skip time in certain places, and in some cases for some crucial events, and only deal with the aftermath of what we don't know happened.

In terms of basic narrative structure, one could find analogies to be had with the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. For much of the tale we follow Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the estranged ex-wife of African farm owner Andrew Vial (Christopher Lambert), as she tries to barter and maintain the farm amidst political revolution. At the same time Maria must deal with her despondent son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), husband's new fiancee and child, local rebel leader seeking refuge, and a group of workers on the verge of leaving.

All sounds well and good, until the events start playing out, time gets lost in the shuffle, and we end up dealing with a lot of over stylized sequences with no real emphasis on backdrop. Visually arresting, Denis creates a wonderfully shot and tense world, which helps draw in the viewer, but seems annoyed at the prospect of maintaining that connection. Something that serves as a detriment to the great central performances of Huppert, Lambert, and Duvauchelle.

In fact, the strong combination of visuals and acting are the only reasons I would recommend this film. By its own creation, it is not a film that can promise wide spread appeal, and will likely only be taken in and appreciated by those who find some associative quality in its structuring. While I would love to think there is some great benefit to the film's elusive organization, none of that benefit trickled its way onto me.

Film Credits:
Directed By: Claire Denis
Scenario By: Claire Denis and Marie N'Diaye
Collaborator: Lucie Borleteau

5 better thoughts:

Robert said...

Oh my goodness, thank you - I thought I was the only one who didn't really get the hype for this film. I watched it at the New York Film Festival and though I had stayed up extremely late the night before which may have had something to do with it I fell asleep. I thought Isabelle Huppert's performance was really interesting, but otherwise it was messy. I might have to rewatch it but...yeah.

Alex said...

Wow sorry to hear you struggled so much with this one! I'd wanted to see it but missed it in theaters, and will likely still try it on dvd. I've only seen one other Denis film (35 Shots of Rum) and I'm still getting a feel for her style. Good to know that the story's structure might be confusing, so I'll try to focus more on the acting and cinematography!

Film Intel said...

Wow, I'm stunned. I had this quite high on my rental list after a high recommendation. A number of people have advised me about Denis' style but not quite to this degree. I'll certainly still see it but I'm far less optimistic than I was. Cheers for managing to get the review out!

Univarn said...

@Robert I'm not sure if sleep would have helped this film in my eyes or not. Glad to know I've got at least a couple people on my side.

@Alex Good luck when you try and watch it.

@Intel I went in absolutely blind on Denis' style and I think that hurt me quite a bit. Having not seen any of her previous work, I found it to be quite annoying. Perhaps had I been forewarned, and not merely read 'all praise' reviews, I would have been more kindly on it.

Chase Kahn said...

Oh of my favorites from last year. I thought it was quietly devastating - it develops like a wildfire (or a nightmare remembered) and featured probably my favorite closing shot of the year.

I found "35 Shots of Rum", on the other hand, to be a bit too doleful, but I can get behind "White Material".

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