The chief pleasure of Claire Denis’ work is that it’s incomplete, at least in the sense that the audience has to be engaged in completing it. Films like Friday Night, Beau Travail, and 35 Shots Of Rum unfold in glancing, elliptical strands that need some connecting, but the experience is uniquely alluring and intuitive, and only feels like work if you resist it. Denis’ latest, White Material, isn’t one of her best, but her style is exceptionally well-suited to a story about a stubborn woman trying to make sense of the chaos that’s slowly consuming her world. Returning Denis to her childhood roots in colonial Africa, the site of her 1988 breakthrough Chocolat and much of Beau Travail, White Material subtly captures the faith and hubris that keeps a European farmer planted on land that’s shifting beneath her feet.
Though just as beautiful as in Denis’ other African adventures, the continent here is a more hostile place, swept up by a civil war that spreads not only violence, but madness to the populace. Set in an unspecified country, the film stars the great Isabelle Huppert as a coffee-grower whose determination to stay through the harvest, in spite of signs of imminent danger to herself and her family, is less courageous than stubborn and foolhardy. Meanwhile, Denis follows a charismatic rebel icon, played by Isaach De Bankolé, whose fate intertwines with Huppert’s.
As usual, Denis assembles the big picture from a series of tiny moments—some involve the striking landscape, others the child-warriors recruited into war, while still more hint at Huppert’s psychosis and countless other ideas and images at play. And characteristically, Huppert doesn’t reveal anything obvious about herself, allowing the audience to guess about her decisions, motives, and fundamental decency. The middle section of White Material could stand to be more purposeful—though Denis likely wants us to feel the character in limbo—and Huppert’s son’s radical transformation in response to personal violence seems too abrupt. But Denis brings it all together for a genuinely shocking finale, unexpected, yet in keeping with the film’s consuming madness.