The film opens with unplaceable scenes of fire and death before we see Maria ignoring the pleas of a French army helicopter for her to leave. Her staff are abandoning her, but Maria’s response is to recruit new help. She forces her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) to leave his bed and argues her corner with her louche ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), who, like her sick father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor, physically channelling the rot of his character’s position), lives in the same area. Old friends become new enemies, and trust drains from the community in the same way that blood seeps from the wounds of a rebel soldier called The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), who is hiding in the lush countryside.
It’s a war film – but it’s a war film by Claire Denis, which means that a feeling of unease replaces any sense of clarity on our part towards what we’re seeing. This means there’s a complexity and unknowability to all her characters, and above all to Maria, so we’re never able fully to judge or understand them. What arises from the film’s damp, steamy chaos is a sense of war as a creeping, unnatural force, a growing disease rather than an event. Of the film’s many startling images, the sight of young soldiers, dressed in green, emerging from foliage to the sound of Denis favourite Stuart Staples’s music, suggests nothing other than an emerging virus.
Our challenge is to consider if, or why, Maria should continue to fight her corner – a question which Denis asks us to answer purely in human terms by keeping the political and personal framework of her story hazy. Neither a heroine nor a fool, Denis’s Maria is a mirror to a world where the colour of one’s skin is a silent issue in times of peace but a reminder of real divisions in times of war. That’s what the title hints at: we hear a kid call a fancy lighter he finds ‘white material’, but it’s also used as a term of derision on the rebels’ radio broadcasts which Denis includes as a rooting device akin to voiceover.
Underlying the film, one feels there’s a great deal of subtle self-reflection by Denis, a woman who grew up in Africa, white, like Maria, in a black land. The film is not autobiography or memoir, but its themes are very personal to her and there are the odd, startling moments when Huppert, fragile in stature but tough in spirit, with flashes of unkempt hair, looks a bit like Denis – moments as haunting as the film itself.