Despair, desolation and death suffuse Claire Denis’ impressionistic film, set in an unnamed African country being torn apart by civil war. Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria, a French woman determined to remain on the coffee plantation owned by her ex-father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), who’s incapacitated. She insists on remaining, and finding workers to bring in the crop, despite the fact that the region is a powderkeg in which government troops and rebels (many of them child soldiers) are stalking one another, both brutalizing and often killing locals and both searching for the underground leader known as The Boxer (De Bankole).
Also involved in the catastrophe are Maria’s ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert), who wants to sell the plantation and flee the country, and her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), an irresponsible layabout who goes mad after being humiliated by two young revels and turns to violence himself. And acting as a sort of Greek chorus throughout is a radio broadcaster who advises the remaining French to get out while they can and reports on the chaos surrounding him.
“White Material”—a derogatory term used by blacks to refer to the French—depicts a society left in tatters by the departing Europeans, and so shows the terrible effects of colonialism. (Signs with slogans like “God Will Not Abandon You” on a church, and “The Mayor Keeps His Word,” on the mansion of the man with whom Andre’s negotiating the sale of the plantation—and who’s built his own private militia—add to the sense of anarchy.) But it’s not a socio-political screed. The situation is merely presented as the backdrop to the human drama. The film is actually about the hold the land, even in so desperate a state, continues to have on some long-time white residents. The impact of Maria’s intransigence and blind insistence on staying is shown most clearly on Manuel, who literally loses his identity and descends into madness as a result, but it has a similarly extreme effect on her.
The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks, as Maria, who’s lost her car to a band of militants, struggles to get home. That adds to the impressionistic character of the piece, a quality accentuated in Yves Cape’s cinematography, which has a ragged, hallucinatory style. Huppert paints a striking portrait of a woman whose obsessive determination makes her hard, unyielding and uncomprehending of the reality surrounding her, and Duvauchelle transforms convincingly from slacker to thug. Lambert is persuasively bland.
“White Mischief” is hardly an easy film to watch; it’s challenging and, in the end, very sad. But it’s a powerful commentary on the heart of darkness.