Claire Denis’ tense, convulsive White Material is a portrait of change and a thing of terrible beauty. The time is unspecified. The subject is the collapse of an unnamed West African state. And the protagonist is French settler Maria (unflinchingly played by Isabelle Huppert), the proprietress of a family-run coffee plantation.
A composition in continuous crisis and continual dread, White Material begins at the end, with Maria’s plantation in flames and a revolutionary hero, known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), an already cold corpse. Flashbacks are indistinguishable from flash-forwards.
Rogue soldiers rule the roads. Helicopters dispatched by evacuating French forces drop useless “survival kits.” The dying Boxer scrambles through the bush to find refuge on a doomed plantation; meanwhile, his activities are the subject of menacing radio transmissions issued by a mysterious DJ who also promises that “for [European] white material, the party is over.”
Astonishingly self-contained and remarkably girlish, Huppert anchors the movie. Maria is impossibly stubborn, apparently tireless, and totally fearless. She is resourceful enough to run a plantation by herself and yet can’t face the reality of her situation. The sense of final days becomes that of final moments, with a particular way of life inexorably sloshing down the drain.
Because the movie’s protagonist is the only European woman we see, race is always apparent — she is a foreign body being expelled by her host in a bloody purge, just a bit of “white material” borne off in the raging current of history.