Claire Denis has always been a poet of mood and moment, and here succeeds in linking these skills to the creation of a story with oppressive tension and atmosphere. White Material could be her best film since Beau Travail: a disturbing piece of work whose power and grip increase, almost imperceptibly, as the film progresses to its awful and inevitable conclusion. Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, a coffee farmer in an unnamed African state – Francophone, and presumably a former French colony – which is in meltdown. There is lawlessness on the streets and, as in Rwanda, radio DJs pour out inflammatory broadcasts. The colonial whites are being blamed. Every day is more dangerous for Maria, but she stubbornly refuses to leave, perhaps because she cannot imagine a life back in France, perhaps because decades of facing down quasi-insurrectionary threats from the indigenous workforce have left her unable to distinguish this grave crisis from all the other temporary mutinies.
With a bold disregard for traditional Hollywood-screenplay templates, Denis leaves it until quite late in the movie before introducing the other people in Maria's life: her ravaged and leonine husband André – an intriguing performance from Christopher Lambert – and her son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Feckless Manuel is the imperious Maria's Achilles heel. So effortlessly authoritative and demanding in every other area of her life, Maria cannot control Manuel, who lies around in bed all day; he declines to help with the plantation and Maria cannot bring herself to order him.
Read the complete Peter Bradshaw review here.