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