White Material is a 2009 French drama film directed by Claire Denis and co-written with Marie NDiaye.
The film stars Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, a struggling French coffee producer in an unnamed French-speaking African country, who decides to stay at her coffee plantation in spite of an erupting civil war.
Maria Vial is a white French farmer who runs (with her ex-husband, Andre, and his sickly father Henri) a failing coffee plantation in an unnamed African country in the present day. Maria and Andre have a lazy, mentally unstable son, Manuel, while Andre has another half-African son, Jose. Civil war has broken out and rebel soldiers, many of them child soldiers, are advancing on the area. The French military, while pulling out, makes one final plea for Maria to leave, but unyielding in her desire to protect her family’s home, she ignores the warnings. Meanwhile, a rebel DJ on the radio urges the rebels on and advocates attacks on emblems of colonialism. Maria’s workers flee for fear of the upcoming conflict. Maria stubbornly refuses to abandon the plantation and its harvest, which will be ready in five days. Risking her life and unable to find Andre, she drives to a village to hire men to finish harvesting the coffee. On the way, she is forced to pay off bandits who threaten to kill her at a roadblock. After hiring the workers, she stops at the elementary school and collects Andre’s other son, Jose. Jose is an upbeat boy of about 12, and we later learn that his mother is Andre’s father’s young housekeeper.
Meanwhile, we see Andre in town meeting with the African mayor, Cherif. Cherif, seeing that Andre is desperate, takes advantage of the situation and offers to purchase the plantation for the cancellation of Andre’s debts. Cherif requires Andre to get his father to sign over the coffee plantation to him. Having returned to the plantation, Maria searches out her son Manuel and finds him in bed after midday. Trying to rouse him, she laments his listlessness and scolds that he is without purpose. Manuel rises, and after a swim, is intrigued by a noise in the house. He follows it to two young rebels. They run, and in spite of his lack of shoes, Manuel follows them far from the home. They eventually corner him; he discovers that they’re armed with a spear and a machete. The rebel children threaten him, cut his hair, and retreat to the bush, firing shots from a revolver. Maria, Andre, and some workers converge on Manuel and are shocked to find him stripped and standing naked in the field. Maria loads him in the tractor and heads back to the house. Manuel, obviously traumatised and out of his mind, abandons the tractor and goes to his grandfather’s home. There the heavily tattooed Manuel reacts to his assault by shaving his head, stealing his grandfather’s shotgun, attacking Jose’s mother, and disappearing on his mother’s motorbike.
Despite Andre’s continued pleas that they should flee, Maria remains steadfast in her efforts to bring in the coffee crop. She discovers the wounded rebel hero known as ‘The Boxer’ in a barn and feeds him. As night falls the workers bed down and Maria falls asleep dreaming of an earlier evening where we see her discussing Manuel with Cherif in what appears to be a romantic situation fuelled by marijuana. Cherif warns her that her son is ‘half-baked’, a statement which makes her laugh. She awakens and attempts to start work again. However, the radio issues reports that the Boxer is being harboured by the “foreigners” and that loyal citizens should oppose them. Her workers, hearing this, demand to be paid immediately. Upon threat, Maria opens the safe to find that the money is all gone, likely taken by Andre to secure passage out of the country. Gun at her head, Maria submits to a demand to drive the workers back to the village.
Before they can reach the village they are stopped by a band of young rebels who appear to be wearing her clothing and jewellery. The rebels demand the truck and, when a worker protests that they are just poor villagers, the rebels shoot him and drive off leaving Maria by the roadside. Maria discovers they have looted the pharmacy and killed the doctor and his assistant. Driving the truck down the road the rebels are pursued by Manuel, who tells them that he knows where the Boxer is and leads them back to the plantation. He is clearly mad as he assists the rebels to loot his own family’s food store. The rebels and Manuel gorge themselves on the food and then ingest the many pharmaceutical products that they have stolen. Almost all then pass out in and around the house.
Government troops then retake control of the area. They slip onto the plantation grounds, immediately in front of Andre’s father, who calls out no warning to anyone inside. We see the troops move from room to room, slitting the throats of the child rebels who are passed out from the orgy of food and medication. Government troops then lock the gun-toting Manuel in one of the farm buildings and burn him to death. Andre is shown dead on the floor of the house holding the family passports.
In the town Maria is overwrought. She is seeking a way back to the house when Cherif sees her and gives her a ride. At the plantation Maria finds Manuel’s charred body. Andre’s father is shown walking around the barn where Manuel was burned. Maria kills Andre’s father with a machete, presumably seeing him at least partly responsible for the death of her son. Another reason may be the fact that Andre’s father had promised Maria that she would inherit the plantation, but has broken the promise that very day by selling the land to Cherif. Maria’s ex-husband, instigator of the sale, has already been killed, so his father is the only one in the family left to be punished.
At the end, we see one rebel leaving the area with the wounds to his head. He carries the beret of the Boxer. He tucks it into his trousers and continues into the countryside.
- Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial.
- Christopher Lambert as André, her ex-husband.
- Nicolas Duvauchelle as Manuel, their son.
- Isaach de Bankolé as “The Boxer”.
- Adèle Ado as Lucie.
- Michel Subor as André’s father.
- William Nadylam as Chérif, the mayor.
- David Gozlan as Hamudi.
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in April 2011 and features new interviews with Denis and actors Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankolé, a short documentary by Denis on the film’s premiere at the 2010 Écrans Noirs Film Festival in Cameroon, and a deleted scene.
Awards and Nominations
- Nomination – Denver Film Critics Society Award for Best Foreign Language Film (pending).
- Nomination – Golden Lion – Claire Denis.
- Nomination – Satellite Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
- Nomination – Washington DC Area Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
- The film was well received, earning high ratings and appearing in several movie critics’ top lists for 2010.
- White Material was later voted the 97th greatest film since 2000 in an international critics’ poll conducted by BBC, and in 2017 the film was named the fifteenth “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far” in The New York Times.
- This film came about because Isabelle Huppert approached Claire Denis, asking her if they could work together.
- The scene where Maria goes into her son’s bedroom to wake him up was written intentionally long, with numerous throwaway lines, so that it could be cut way down during editing.
- According to director Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert’s line readings were so precise and meaningful that they ended up not cutting a single word.
Production & Filming Details
- Claire Denis.
- Pascal Caucheteux … producer.
- Serge Hayat … co-producer.
- Claire Denis (scenario).
- Marie N’Diaye (scenario).
- Lucie Borleteau (collaboration).
- Stuart Staples.
- Yves Cape.
- Guy Lecorne.
- Why Not Productions (co-production).
- Wild Bunch (co-production).
- France 3 Cinéma (co-production).
- Canal+ (participation).
- France Télévisions (participation).
- TPS Star (participation).
- Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée (participation).
- Les Films Terre Africaine (in association with).
- Cinémage 2 (in association with).
- Sofica UGC 1 (in association with).
- Procirep (support).
- Artificial Eye (2010) (UK) (theatrical) (subtitled).
- Folkets Bio (2010) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- IFC Films (2010) (USA) (theatrical) (subtitled).
- Interior13 Cine (2010) (Mexico) (theatrical).
- Wild Bunch Benelux (2010) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
- Wild Bunch Distribution (2010) (France) (theatrical).
- Angel Films (2012) (Denmark) (all media).
- Aztec International (2010) (Australia) (DVD).
- Film1 (2011) (Netherlands) (TV) (limited).
- Imovision (2010) (Brazil) (all media).
- Teleview International (2009) (Lebanon) (all media) (Middle East).
- The Criterion Channel (2019) (USA) (TV) (digital).
- The Criterion Collection (2011) (USA) (DVD).
- Release Date: 06 September 2009 (Venice International Film Festival).
- Running Time: 106 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: France.
- Language: French & English (subtitles).