Watching White Material, I thought, “Well, duh, of course Isabelle Huppert would play the lead.” As the matriarch of a coffee plantation in an unidentified east African country who will not accept that the white ruling class’ days have ended, Huppert sticks that famous marble-like chin and lower lip into the viewer’s eye. The casting of Huppert is all too easy. She’s neither obstinate nor indomitable, just mad, and her performance doesn’t suggest any slippage. Claire Denis’ movie is the last chapter of the book she began in 1988′s Chocolat, in which she also captured the languid pace of colonial life through the eyes of an alert little girl who may grow up into a woman like Huppert (whose own relations with her black help are solicitous and uncondescending). No French director since Bresson can match Denis’ ear for sound: rustling grass, lolling cows, running water, rifle reports. But her fondness for lacuna can turn her pictures into thesis statements for unfinished college essays. It wasn’t the case with Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, and 35 Shots of Rum.
White Material actually moves faster than usual, which is a pity; it’s an odd mix of pinched and arty, as when Denis photographs blood in a bathtub in all its luscious scarletness. The relationships between key characters are elided. While Huppert’s marriage to her impatient ex (Christopher Lambert, channeling Nick Nolte) rings true, the power structure created by money and patronage, through which indentured labor, villagers, and mayor benefited, is sketchily delineated. What happens to their insolent whelp of a son (Nicolas Duvauchelle ) is less clear: after a terrifying run-in with young feral natives, he shaves his head, poses like Gregoire Colin from Denis’ earlier Beau Travail, and goes native like a Paul Bowles character? “This is his country. But it doesn’t like him,” the kind but powerless ex-mayor tells Huppert at the picture’s conclusion. He also contributes one of the picture’s examples of gnomic wisdom: “Extreme blondness brings bad luck. It has to be pillaged.”