Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) lives on a plantation in an African nation which has just undergone a revolution as the French colonials have handed over power to the locals, and the soldiers are roaming the countryside picking off the rebels. In the middle of this, Maria has been trying to sustain her coffee plantation which she runs with her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert), but her workers have been fleeing the war zone and as the numbers are whittled down, she finds herself fighting an uphill battle in the face of a tide set to wash the whites from the land...
And not only the whites, as the rebel leader, Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé) is someone we return to periodically, even though we see him dead right at the beginning of the film. That was down to director Claire Denis making this story non-linear, though not so much that you would find it impossible to follow, so what we are actually seeing for much of the running time are Maria's memories as she sits on a bus being transported back to the plantation. The reasons why she had left are explained nearer the end, but by that stage we also recognise that cricumstances have dictated the flight of Maria's marbles as well as her workers.
Played by Huppert, it was a role tailor made for her, being one of her not exactly sympathetic mature women, with a touch of the enigmatic about her, just enough to have us wondering what could possibly be going on in her head. That was notable in light of the way Maria carries herself through this world going down the drain, and for all Denis's moves towards explaining the nature of the African revolution of the sort that afflicted Zimbabwe, where the goal of liberty and equality for all is bastardised into whoever employs the most violence getting to run things, it was plainly her leading character she was most intrigued by.
Therefore if you found this woman, who it was safe to say was labouring in denial for pretty much the whole movie, to be someone who you would want to give a good shake to bring her to her senses, then you were not going to get on with White Material. Just about everyone around her points out the futility of staying on to Maria, for a start nobody will be thinking about buying coffee when lives are at stake in the region, yet she continues to tread her own path, no matter that her way of life is going out of fashion with quite a bang. André does his best to persuade her to go back to France, but in her stubborness she puts his life at risk and those she knows.
Before you start thinking this was settling into a cliché of angry black man versus white devil for the best part of two hours, Denis managed something with more depth than any such kneejerk reaction on either side, indeed with Maria caught in the middle she worked up a curious balance, not only between the old ways and the new ways being brought in by force and chaos, but with the sides of the political spectrum which brought this about, and more, the beauty of the African landscape and the ugliness of what was blighting the land in its human representatives. That was not meaning the entire black population, as Denis made it clear they were not one big homogenous lump of protest and gun/machete-toting for there are those who are brutal anti-colonialists and those who want a more peaceful solution, but the whites had a variety of personality too, from André's tries at common sense to son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who turns skinhead in reaction, yet also helps the rebels. If anything, this illustrated there were no easy solutions, with all the despair that implied. Music by Stuart Staples.