The title of this grave work derives from Black African slang for Whites and for the objects Whites own, e.g., a gold cigarette lighter (an important symbolic prop in the film). Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is the main white material here, a middle-aged woman trapped by the colonial past and present civil war in an unnamed African country.
Maria married into the Vial coffee plantation founded by her ex-father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor). Her former husband, André Vial (Christophe Lambert), divorced Maria to marry a young Black woman, Lucie (Adèle Ado). Maria stayed on with her son—a slacker who transforms into a shotgun-toting skinhead—and she is now the farm’s major domo. She remains in Africa because she loves the country, knows the plantation work, and can’t go home. The family is outlawed in France, for reasons never made clear.
The crisis that propels the plot and radically changes Maria’s life and everyone’s life around her is that civil insurrection. The Vial farm lies in the path of an advancing rebel vanguard that will expropriate White-owned property and kill the Europeans. The Vials must flee, but Maria won’t. She needs a week to finish the coffee-berry harvest. Complicating her predicament, Maria’s employees, afraid the rebels will kill them for working with Whites, abandon the farm. Undaunted, she hires a ragtag crew desperate enough to work for her. So the race is on. Will the crop be in before the rebels arrive? Will the Vials escape?
Although the context of the narrative—Black/White conflict in Africa with its attendant sufferings, violence, and privileges—could become cliched, White Material never seems so because it avoids ideological simplifications and etches its characters and circumstances mostly in complex shades of grey. Maria is grim but likable; determined and brave, but heedless. She hides the rebels’ leader (Isaach De Bankolé) because he’s wounded and needs help, though the rebels would kill her if they could. We do empathize with Maria; yet for all her pluck and decency you can’t forget that she’s a favoured landowner. In this equation, we likewise empathize with the Blacks.
The film’s complexities extend to the internecine struggle between the country’s opposing indigenous soldiers. The rebel cadre turns out to be composed of children. It’s hard to believe that a bunch of disorganized, ragamuffin orphans could create so much fear. Yet they’re armed to the teeth and ready to kill, which one girl does in a powerful, frightening moment. For their part, the government troops seem to be saviours, a force for order, but their ruthlessness becomes more repellent than the children’s.
The film’s editing sometimes creates confusion because it’s not always immediately obvious from scene-to-scene where the narrative line is being picked up. This aesthetic device works because it reflects the gathering disturbance of Maria’s mental balance. The intercutting of past and present can make it difficult to grasp the temporal context and sequencing, thus also abetting the sense of dislocation (hint: a pink dress is the Ariadne’s thread). The washed-out, sun-baked cinematography matches the countryside.
Though all the actors in White Material acquit themselves well, including the non-professionals, the film depends on Huppert’s lead performance. She has starred in more than fifty movies, in English and French (she’s fluently bilingual). Now, like Meryl Streep, she is of a certain age, and like Meryl she never lacks for new projects. Lucky for us. In this film, she has a lot to do: It’s instructive to watch her work; she’s absolutely convincing as a woman with too much courage for her own good, a staunch soul who can’t be cowed but who is nonetheless lost.