Will Maria heed the advice from a fled worker whose final words were, “coffee’s coffee; it’s not worth dying for?”
Claire Denis, the director of the 2010 film White Material, is a connoisseur of imagery – imagery that mesmerizes, imagery that perturbs and, above all, imagery that belies truth. Any review of a film by Denis – once an understudy to such cinematic originals as Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch – would be null if it ignored this element. In Beau Travail, the soft pant of surf is juxtaposed with a group of French Foreign Legion soldiers in synchronized calisthenics, then a shot of two shirtless men circling one another, eyeball to eyeball, engagement inevitable. The scene establishes the plotline to follow, as disconcerting as it may be.
The same occurs early in White Material, when Maria, a white French woman (Isabelle Huppert), yields a seat aboard a sardine-tight bus, so she can grasp onto the railing at the bus’ back, her hair like wind-whipped wheat as the bus motors away, rousing a fog of dust. The film, set on the cusp of civil war, unfolds from Maria’s vantage point, a coffee plantation operator. She is partial neither to the government’s army – a puppet for French interests and the superwealthy – nor the rebels, made up mostly of children orphaned by the military’s indiscriminate crackdown. Maria simply wants to maintain her coffee business, bestowed as the deathbed wish of her father. She will stop at nothing to protect it, despite threats against her and her family, particularly her son, whose alienation and humiliation at the mercy of child soldiers leads to insanity.
The film opens with a prowling beam of light cast on a dark room. The beam illuminates a face: it is an African tribal mask, the eyes wrathfully downturned. It’s a reflection of the home’s occupant. Nicknamed “The Boxer,” his skills in the ring earned him esteem among his countryman, the underdog answer to the mechanics of tyranny. For too long, the people of this African nation have dealt with leaders campaigning as a voice of the people, only to revert to the same strongarming tactics again and again. Tactics more favorable to the holdover French who colonized the country than those who’ve called it home since the dawn of humankind. The beam of light jerks through several rooms until it settles. Soon, it pools with other light: “The Boxer” is dead.
Who is “The Boxer,” the commander of the rebels known by no other name? The viewer never really learns his backstory. In flashback, we discover that an unhealing stomach wound didn’t deter his mission until the blood loss became too great, and that he is a just man, never one to harm anybody undeserving. The same cannot be said, however, of his opponents, representative of the regime. They wield anxious trigger fingers and a cutthroat sensibility, even towards mere children.
Meanwhile, the threats against Maria are mounting. Business is in the red. Priests at a nearby hospital have been shot to death, wounds mockingly inflicted in either wrist by a rebel band without “The Boxer’s” principles. A radio jockey implores attacks on all emblems of colonialism, resulting in all her workers leaving during the height of harvest. Then, a freshly severed goat’s head turns up in a batch of coffee beans: a sign that she is a target for execution. Will Maria heed the advice from a fled worker whose final words were, “coffee’s coffee; it’s not worth dying for?”