White Material

Claire Denis returns to Africa for the first time since her masterpiece Beau travail (SFIFF 2000) with this dark story of a Frenchwoman's refusal to give up her coffee plantation-and uproot her family-in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Denis, who was raised in Africa, has once again made a film demonstrating a deep understanding of the complex relationship between colonizers and colonized. The result is a perceptive depiction of contemporary Africa that is steeped in authenticity and strikingly evocative. Isabelle Huppert, working with Denis for the first time, plays the steely, self-deluding Martha Vial, obstinately continuing the coffee harvest amid the turmoil. Heedless of the French Army's warnings to evacuate, she carries on even as the plantation's African workers flee for safety, shrugging off the increasingly baleful portents and threats that close in around her family. While the specter of violence looms ominously over the film, Denis's tone is characteristically measured and reflective. Through small but carefully observed moments, she immerses the viewer in the eerie, menacing calm that precedes the furious denouement, and regular collaborator Stuart Staples delivers a haunting score that accentuates the protagonists' mounting sense of hopelessness and isolation. Whereas Denis's previous film, 35 Shots of Rum (SFIFF 2009), warmly portrayed a group of outsiders coming together to form an unconventional sort of family, this time a traditional family is poisoned and broken apart by the political circumstances enveloping it.

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