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Claire Denis returns to French colonial Africa with ‘White Material’

Arms raised, hair streaming sensually as she glides on a motorbike down a dirt road, Isabelle Huppert looks as radiant as a Renaissance saint.

The moment occurs early in Claire Denis’ latest film, “White Material,” which opened Friday and stars Huppert as a French coffee plantation owner clinging fiercely to her land in an unnamed African country on the verge of bloody implosion. For a few seconds, viewers may wonder whether Denis is slyly nodding to one of her favorite directors, David Lean, who shot another celestial blond, Peter O’Toole, whipping along on a motorcycle in the opening frames of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

But cinema’s epic era, which Lean’s films epitomized, has largely vanished. So too has the European-run, colonial world order that Lean depicted in movies such as “Lawrence” and “A Passage to India.”

In the post-colonial world of “White Material,” Denis deploys what might be called a post-epic cinematic language — poetic yet visceral, globally aware but intensely localized and personal — to haunting effect, while avoiding black-and-white judgments about her characters or the ethnically scrambled societies that shaped them.

“White Material” probes the lives of ordinary people facing extreme circumstances. The film opens with nightmarish visions of a raging fire and soldiers examining a corpse, followed by images of Huppert’s barefoot, disheveled character running as if for her life. The “liberated” West Africa of “White Material” is a place where armies of drug-addled child soldiers wreak terror and whites’ psyches are as fractured as the film’s elliptical story line.

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When Huppert, the French actress who plays the resolute plantation owner, Maria Vial, read the film’s script, she thought of a Shakespeare play.

“It manages to mix savagery and war and politics. Altogether, I thought it was quite Shakespearean but also very intimate” and “very dreamy,” Huppert says. However, she adds, “you can’t really locate the movie on a psychological level or a political level. She [Denis] really is above all that.”

Or, one might say, profoundly immersed in it.

A diplomat’s daughter, Denis, 62, spent much of her childhood in the French colonies that would become Djibouti, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, where “White Material” was shot. She first invoked that landscape of memory and desire in “Chocolat,” her 1988 directorial debut (not to be confused with the romantic bonbon of the same title starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp).

Set on the revolutionary cusp of the late 1950s, “Chocolat” unwinds mainly through the astute gaze of a 7-year-old named France and in the flashbacks of her adult self. France’s bored, beautiful mother and the valiant black “house boy” Protée (Isaach De Bankolé) are the other main characters swirling in a volatile cocktail of racism, Eurocentric arrogance and frustrated lust.

Denis, who apprenticed as an assistant director with Costa-Gavras, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch before making “Chocolat,” says her latest film took root when Huppert approached her about adapting “The Grass Is Singing,” Doris Lessing’s 1950 debut novel. The author, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007, spent her girlhood in the British colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1920s.

“I told Isabelle, ‘I know this fable very well,’ ” recalls Denis, speaking by phone from New York. But she rejected the idea of doing a period piece about “this failure of poor English farmers with their tragedy.” For similar reasons, Denis says, she wouldn’t make a film like “Out of Africa” today, with its glamorous white protagonists and largely nameless black characters.

However, Huppert says, Denis tucked a photo of Lessing into one of the sets for “White Material.” “She liked the idea that Doris Lessing’s soul is still in the film,” Huppert says.

Eventually, Denis opted for a much more contemporary story, which she co-scripted with another close observer of French colonial and post-colonial affairs, Franco-Senegalese novelist Marie Ndiaye. In 2009, Ndiaye won her country’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for her novel “Trois Puissantes Femmes” (Three Powerful Women), about a young female attorney traveling from Paris to Dakar to visit her estranged father.

If not exactly a powerful woman, Huppert’s Maria is a relentlessly, even recklessly, brave one. While the country around her is plunging into civil war, Maria becomes fixated on salvaging one last coffee crop from the farm she runs with her ex-husband, André (Christoph Lambert). But her former spouse wants to escape the coming apocalypse with his second wife and child and has been scoping out a deal to sell the farm in league with the savvy village mayor (William Nadylam).

Maria sees herself as different from the other fleeing whites, and not just because she doesn’t believe she’s in danger. “I don’t think she identifies herself with the country. I think she identifies herself with a little piece of land,” Denis says. “What I like is that she wants to finish her work.”

Meanwhile, dueling squadrons of government troops and the tattered, pitiful but lethal children’s rebel army are converging on Maria’s farm. So is a wounded, Che Guevara-like rebel fighter nicknamed the Boxer (De Bankolé of “Chocolat”). Although Denis insists the two films aren’t related, it’s not hard to see “White Material” as, at one level, a somber meditation on the hopes for prosperity and equality that inspired the uprisings that shook Africa in the 1960s — hopes that remain unfulfilled today in many parts of the continent.

The authentic texture of “White Material” derives as much from its specific, quietly observed details — a shopkeeper’s anxious glance, the reddish-brown ooze of swirling coffee beans — as from its political acuity. During filming, Huppert says, she felt as if she were channeling some of Denis’ childhood memories. “We were close to places where she used to spend her vacation as a little girl. When we were doing the movie I clearly felt I was Claire, in a way.”

“White Material” — the title comes from blacks’ quasi-derisive term for whites and their material possessions — neither romanticizes or demonizes France’s colonial legacy, preferring nuanced (though often wordless) character study to political attitudinizing. When a rebel-sympathizing disc jockey spouts off about the exploitative whites sipping “cocktails on verandas,” his rant is undercut by images of Maria racing to save her crop. Conversely, the film subtly conveys that Maria’s dangerous faith in her invincible aura reflects a race-based sense of privilege and entitlement.

In the end, both whites and blacks are shown to be capable of tenderness and callousness, murderous brutality and random kindness. Put another way, “White Material” requires us to look at the relation between the former colonizers and the formerly colonized as a two-way human transaction, like any other.

In many film treatments of such relationships, Huppert says, the characters are acting either “in total denial” or “total guilt, and neither is completely satisfying.”

Denis, Huppert says, is trying to show those complex interactions “with no denial and no guilt, and she is the most entitled to talk about it because she has lived it.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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