White Material

Isabelle Huppert adorns a subtle post-colonial drama.

In the unidentified African country that provides the setting for Claire Denis's White Material, radio becomes a bulletin board for anyone fleeing the violence of civil war. But for the rebels it offers a chance to advertise their grievances, or to gloat. "For the 'white material', the party's over," declares a broadcaster. "No more cocktails on verandas. They're right to be running scared."

Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is the French owner of the family coffee plantation, but she's not running anywhere. The rebels, led by "the Boxer" (Isaach de Bankolé), are combing the forests and reducing acres of farmland to carpets of silver ash. Maria is just trying to keep her business ticking over. If she can hold on for five more days, the crop won't be ruined. She's making coffee while Africa burns.

With White Material, Denis returns to the scene of her 1988 feature debut, Chocolat - not the diabetes-inducing Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp confection, but a bitter-tasting sample of life in colonial-era Cameroon. That film, with its sexual tension between a black servant and his employer's wife, felt solidly Strindbergian, but Maria is straight out of Chekhov. She is staring futility in the face and trying not to blink first.

Huppert has become ubiquitous in inter­national cinema since the introduction of EU Regulation 31c, which states that no art-house film shall begin shooting until there is a part either for her or Binoche. And still she's not out of surprises. Rounding up the reluctant villagers to harvest that final crop, she is like a sinewy, bareknuckle Virginia McKenna (Born Free). When Maria finally gets to cry near the end of the film, Huppert shows how much it hurts her to squeeze out each tear. Giving in to vulnerability is even more painful than the prospect of surrendering the plantation.

When we first see Maria, she is plodding along a deserted road in a pink dress, looking like a petulant child. Chocolat also begins with a lone woman on a road, and unfolds - like White Material - largely in flashback. These deliberate echoes invite us to ponder the contrasts between the earlier scenario, where colonialism is in its death throes, and the new one, where the old racial hierarchy is fully in tatters.

Race war in Chocolat is waged through sideways glances and casual cruelties. Now the knives are out. One horribly magical shot (the picture is photographed in earthy tones by Bruno Dumont's collaborator, Yves Cape) shows dots moving between the trees towards us, slowly revealing themselves to be rebel fighters. Some have children on their shoulders; some are themselves children, armed to the baby teeth with guns and machetes.

But it is not in Denis's nature to make an exposé like Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's terrifying Johnny Mad Dog (2008). The brief bursts of
violence in Chocolat or Beau travail (1999) were choreographed to resemble foreplay; they showed how desire and envy could colour hostility. In White Material, two tiny brutes collar Maria's adult son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), only to slice off a lock of his blond hair and run a curious hand over his milky skin. It's unclear whether they are going to hack him to pieces or compose a sonnet in his honour.

Denis's natural lyricism doesn't preclude serious engagement with her subject. Her view of Maria's predicament is as clear-headed as the character is deluded. Maria believes she is being true to herself and the country by staying put, and can't see that you don't need to be a racist oppressor to collude in an economic system that is both racist and oppressive.

A DJ complains that the whites "rip us off, use our land to make mediocre coffee that we'll never drink". (That "mediocre" is perfect.) And yet when the army is calling to Maria to leave the plantation, she sneers at "those whites". It's a shock for her when a black worker points out that the military helicopters have come to rescue only her family, not his.

The score by Stuart Staples expresses the desolation that Maria never could. Credited alone or with his band Tindersticks, Staples has scored four of Denis's films to date. Only a fool would underestimate the effect on her work of his magic harmonium.

Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday at: newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide