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A woman stands on a deserted African road. She is only wearing a light dress and thin slippers. The enormity of the landscape should makes us worry for the woman, but because she is played by Isabelle Huppert, her quietly fearsome intensity assuages all fear. Director Claire Denis uses Huppert’s considerable talent in White Material, an often-perplexing drama about a woman’s singular persistence. Denis’ austere approach is sometimes off-putting, Huppert and the impressive supporting cast leave lingering thoughts about Europe’s role in modern Africa.

Huppert plays Maria Vial, the administrator of a coffee plantation in an unnamed country. The land seems on the brink of civil war, and Maria refuses to leave her home even after French soldiers implore her from a helicopter. All her workers leave the plantation, and her family is similarly unhelpful. Ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) schemes to sell the property before rebels take it over. Man-child Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) lazes in bed all day. Meanwhile Maria lets The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), a confident leader of child soldiers, convalesce in her home. An air of danger drifts from a nearby village toward the plantation, and despite Maria’s commitment, the rebellion threatens her life and livelihood.

Claire Denis has a well-deserved reputation for complex filmmaking, and White Material is certainly no exception. Her subjects are filmed at medium-shots, and even though her camera follows them like a curious observer, there’s a marked uninvolvement between the director and the cast. Like an Eric Rohmer movie, it feels as if the characters have free will. The script, co-written by Denis and Marie N’Diaye, has no interest in telegraphing the character’s inner turmoil. We are left with Maria and her irrationality. She offers vaguely existential reasons why she refuses to leave Africa, but they sound hollowly unconvincing. Huppert is perfect choice for this kind of role. A lesser actor might add flourishes to suggest Maria is insane, but Huppert’s steely gaze is all the explanation we need. Other actors, particularly Lambert, never express frustration at Maria’s steadfast resolve. Sure, he goes behind her back, yet face-to-face interaction suggest he regards her not as a woman but as a force of nature.

Denis grew up in colonial Africa, and her time there must have informed her outdoor shots, which strike an interesting balance beauty and well-earned respect. Like Maria, the compassion Denis feels for homeland cannot be articulated but is apparent almost immediately. Still, there is no overt political message, nor is there any mention of what causes the conflict. By denying us a context, Denis intimates that Africa has a way of shaking people to their core, forcing them onto a path that simply cannot be interrupted. This true of Maria, but more dramatically noticeable with Manuel, who undergoes a startling transformation that is hard to articulate but easy to comprehend. Mature drama like White Material serves as a reminder of how many American directors play it safe. It leaves a chillingly long-lasting impression, and is important viewing for those who recognize that words fail complicated emotions.

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