Claire Denis tends to produce her best work with films that are set in Africa. Chocolat and Beau Travail, for example, were much better than her genre films, such as Trouble Every Day, and her documentary work. True to form, White Material, which is set in an unnamed African state, is Denis's best film in a number of years. It's also a surprisingly conventional thriller that offers no easy answers to the question of what happens in a postcolonial society. At its heart is a sterling performance from Isabelle Huppert as Maria. Cast to type, the sanguine French actress once again proves that she's the master of playing stubborn women. Here she plays a divorced coffee plantation owner who not only refuses to abandon her crop despite the threat of civil war but also fails to see the dangers posed by child soldiers and a crumbling society. The warnings from her ex-husband (Christophe Lambert) and son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) go unheeded. The story is told out of sequence, so close attention needs to be paid to Huppert's clothing to see which scenes belongs to which time. The tension is ramped up when Maria discovers a rebel leader known as The Boxer (the Denis stalwart Isaach De Bankole) hiding in her shed. The film's refusal to assert blame or come up with answers about Africa serves as a lesson to filmmakers. (The concept would have served Ridley Scott well in his Black Hawk Down.) Denis paints a complex picture, one that is beguiling, ambiguous and thought provoking.
White Material shows tonight at 7pm, Grand Abu Dhabi Mall.
Updated: October 11, 2009 04:00 AM