Friday, 20 August 2010

Africa And Coffee.

Isabelle Huppert fest! Though, going to write this film made me realise ANOTHER film that I had failed to write up, 35 Shots Of Rum. Seriously, every time I think I'm making some headway on this backlog of lists, I come across things I forgot and it just keeps growing. On the plus side, it does make the deficit I need to make up somewhat shorter.

So, the amazing Isabelle Huppert. We may remember that we love her almost as much as life itself. So it is shocking to me that this is only the third time she has shown here, after this one and this one. But here you go, her third appearance here, for her latest French film White Material.

Frail. But oh so strong.

Claire Denis (who did 35 Shots Of Rum, hence why that memory was triggered) takes Ms Huppert to Africa where she puts her in charge of a coffee plantation, whilst all around her civil war rages. It's a damaging state of affairs, where being white makes her the enemy, regardless of how fair she may be to her black charges. Complicating this situation is the presence of her family, particularly her rebellious, antagonistic teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the fact that this plantation is her home and she does not desire to leave it for the safer confines of her native France, and the added fear of fiscal problems relating to the fact that the plantation is failing anyway and she wants to at least get in the final crop that is ready for picking.

Maria (Huppert) risks everything in order to get this last crop. But it is definitely more complex than merely wanting or needing the money. Maria will see giving up and running away as failure of the highest order, especially coupled with the financial problems they will face. To avoid this she is very willing to put the safety, and even the lives of herself and her family on the line - and it is definitely Maria making the decisions. Her husband André (Christopher Lambert) is present but weak, castrated even in the face of the much stronger, more independent and awesomely willful Maria. This is pussywhipping that could cost a life. Plus, Maria complicates matters again by beginning to shelter a rebel officer - she is drawing attention to herself when they should just be trying to slide under the radar and hope for the best. But it is not in Maria's nature to fly under the radar, not when she is being hard done by. She is hardwired to fight back, no matter what the cost.

Huppert is perfectly placed for the role, her wiry frame (looking scarily tiny in the loose and flimsy frocks she was donning for the African heat) adding an outward fragility that was reversed by her steely demeanour, allowing her a contrast that, sure, has been used before, but with her expressive eyes able to radiate iciness like no others this always proves impressive. Duvauchelle's very European looked contrasted well with the African locale, making his obstreperous rebellion almost valid due to how out of place he was. Lambert's presence was limited but very strong, appropriately submissive but never to the point of fully bending over to his wife. Rather than a passive husband doing what he was told, you get the opinion that he has very strong views and that he will fight for them, but he is ultimately steamrolled without mercy, a much stronger force of nature barreling him out of the way.

Denis has crafted a good film, though not quite a great one. Strong performances can't quite get past the fact that the film seems to keep wandering down the one track, and the subplots are never fully fleshed out of given time to take hold. The dominant narrative is very clear, but everything underpinning it is murky. It provides some support, but not quite enough to stop the primary forces from feeling a bit repetitive. The elements were almost universally strong, but they were let down a little in the ultimate grand scheme.

But it's a good film. Definitely a good one. 3 stars.

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