Claire Denis returns to her African birthplace in White Material, examining the tail end of French colonialism. She and actress Isabelle Huppert are quite a formidable team.
Along with Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin, Claire Denis is one of the best directors among the generation of French filmmakers who began working in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. After stints as an assistant director with Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and others, she made her debut with Chocolat (1988), an autobiographical examination of her childhood in Cameroon. Although ethnically French, Denis grew up in Africa, and this background has affected her work deeply. She seems to have an instinctive compassion for displaced people, especially immigrants.
Indeed, her work displays a casual multiculturalism that belies American cinema’s many misfired attempts at anti-racism. Her ease with actors of all races doesn’t lead to politically correct posturing; her I Can't Sleep (1994) depicts a gay serial killer, only a few years after the controversy over similar characters in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Basic Instinct (1992). With White Material (2009), she teams up with France’s bravest actress, Isabelle Huppert.
As usual, Huppert shows no interest in charming the audience; her performance as a stubborn woman is unflinchingly raw. White Material chronicles coffee plantation owner Maria Vial’s (Huppert) last stand in an unnamed African country on the brink of revolution.
Q: Do you picture Maria as someone you could have turned into if your family had stayed in Africa?
Claire Denis: No. I have no experience of farming, working in the country. It’s something I picked up from other people’s experience. I would never have been able to work a farm, growing things.
Q: Ms. Huppert, what was it that made you want to work with Claire? Was it one of her films, or a piece of one of them? An encounter you had with her?
Isabelle Huppert: Having worked with such amazing directors, I wanted to work with another one! I’ve known Claire for years. I think we always wanted to work with each other. I asked Claire if she would consider doing a film based on Doris Lessing’s book The Grass is Singing. Claire kept the idea of doing a movie about a white woman in Africa, but she didn’t want to adapt the book. She created a whole new character, a very active woman fighting for something. That’s how it started. She said the character could be a superwoman, like something out of a manga or comic book. That opened a whole world to me. I used a totally physical approach. I learned how to ride a motorcycle and tractor. The character was mostly defined by her physicality and her capacity to resist.
Claire Denis: It was interesting for me because Isabelle enabled me to imagine the situation. It wouldn’t have been so easy if she hadn’t given me permission and freedom to dream about something. She gave me possibilities. The first scene I imagined and told to Marie N'Diaye, who co-wrote the script, was Maria seen by soldiers in a helicopter as a small figure, lost in a plantation. She’s very fragile and exposed. Then, we go down to the earth with her, as she rides a motorcycle.
One thing I saw in coffee plantations I visited with Marie was a young man who took his motorcycle and raised his arms and said, “Every morning when I go on my motorcycle, I feel free and strong.” I like the way she’s seen by a soldier as a fragile victim and then when she gets on the motorcycle, she’s obviously not a victim. There’s a duality there. There are many shots where a tiny figure is surrounded by the landscape or other people, and close-ups when she’s driving or working or thinking. There, we can see she’s tough and doesn’t want to submit.
Q: There’s a very strong image of Marie’s dress, which is very feminine and pink.
Claire Denis: It’s very feminine. But we used color to speak about the character without psychology. There is a yellow dress at the beginning, and the second dress is pink. We tried a turquoise dress, but it didn’t seem to belong to the story. The others fit it. The camera lingers on the pink dress because she puts it on to seem strong. It’s like armor.
Q: The beginning of the film shows the fate of the Boxer [a Che Guevara-like revolutionary played by Isaach de Bankolé] and Maria’s son. Our first glimpse of Maria isn’t her beginning or end within the narrative. Why did you start with her at a different point?
Claire Denis: The script was written in chronological order. It began with the helicopter scene. While we were working on the script, I liked it like that, but when we shot the scene where Maria is running to catch the bus, I had a strange feeling that it couldn’t be the beginning of the film. I was late on schedule, but the bus scene was the only moment where Maria is alone and moves to act as if she’s trapped. She’s away from the plantation and has no power. It was fast, only taking two afternoons to shoot. It felt like the center of the film, as she suddenly realizes something is happening.
In the editing room, I tried chronological order but I already know I’d dislike it. To have Maria appear in broad daylight, already lost and too late, it was necessary to have a terrible scene at night, as if to prepare for her entrance.
Q: This may be completely unintentional, but for me there’s something ambiguous about the time frame of the film. I’m particularly thinking of the use of ‘70s and ‘80s reggae on the soundtrack.
Claire Denis: I have to tell you very honestly that if you listen to any radio station in Africa, reggae is the basic music. Even reggae from the ‘60s is heard every day on the radio, as if it was a source to come back to and remember. In every country in the so-called Third World, reggae music is always there, since the end of the ‘60s. So the film doesn’t take place in the ‘70s because you hear “Night Nurse.” If you go to Nigeria, you will hear it now.
Q: You also don’t name the country where the film takes place.
Claire Denis: It’s not my intention to be vague. The film is inspired by real events in the Ivory Coast. Of course, it was impossible to shoot the film there because a near-civil war is still going on there. I thought it was better to shoot in a country at peace. Also, I wanted the child soldiers to be played by normal children who go to school. I think it’s necessary for a film containing a certain violence. I didn’t want to write, “This story takes place in 2003 in the Ivory Coast” over the credits. Anyone who knows Cameroon could recognize that’s where I shot it. The border of Nigeria and Cameroon is very visible. Many times at screenings in France, people recognized the locations. If I had claimed it was set in the Ivory Coast, it would have been a lie. Otherwise, I would take the risk to shoot there.
Q: What are Claire’s sets like?
Isabelle Huppert: Well, she tries to create a vision. On one hand, she’s searching for life in something dark. But on the other hand, she’s easy to work with. In order to achieve a simplicity, it requires a lot of hard work. You can imagine that where there’s not a classical storyline and psychological reasons, it’s eventually going to be all put together, but on set, it felt like a series of fragments. As an actor, I never felt lost. You follow what you believe is her thread. As long as you feel that there is a thread, no matter where it takes you, it’s fine.
Claire Denis: Of course, I might look like a very anxious person, but there’s something very strong when Isabelle is present. For me, she’s completely there physically. Everything was physical, during the shoot. It’s not the kind of set where you watch it on a monitor. Everyone is on the move, with the action. If I remember the film, although we had trouble with the schedule and the fact that the plantation was three or four locations put together, the thread was never a problem. It was a sort of joy. If I think of the film, I remember when we walk by the tractor when Isabelle is driving it, with coffee cherries behind it. This energy creates a sort of joy, even if there are problems with the schedule.
Isabelle Huppert: I like the idea of knowing that I’m going somewhere, but feeling at sea. You know that you’re going near the horizon, but you can’t see the horizon. I like this feeling of being lost and going into Claire’s vision simultaneously. I need to trust her; then it’s a very nice feeling.