“Because of you, this country is filthy,” an African soldier scolds white coffee plantation owner Maria (Isabelle Huppert) early in White Material. It’s an ugly moment—not because of the racial charge, but because directness is not director Claire Denis’ bag. The French sensualist of Trouble Every Day and Friday Night does mega-obliqueness. In 35 Shots of Rum, it took two reels to glean that most of the characters were related, while even the staunchest Denis-head couldn’t coherently synopsize The Intruder. For her to go didactic, simple, explicable (or rather, not-inexplicable) feels like a betrayal. So, relax: White Material introduces racial strife as a red herring. She’s really interested in navigating through the particulars of absolute anarchy. And when you get deep enough into anarchy, what caused it doesn’t matter.
In a never-named African country, a vague civil war breaks out. The workers at Maria’s plantation flee, but their wealthy but bedraggled bosses remain in their air-conditioned manse. Maria scrambles through various dubious checkpoints, delusionally maintaining order even as she’s robbed of jewelry and money. Husband André (Highlander Christopher Lambert, art-house slumming) is as useless as his dying father (Michel Subor). Layabout son Manuel (Nicolas Duvachelle) gets robbed by kids and is reborn a juvenile guerilla. Whatever rebels started this mess get swept aside by other, less ideologically driven (and less polite) rebels. Before you know it, to quote Lars Von Trier, chaos reigns.
Throughout, Denis nimbly avoids both demonizing its white imperialist protagonists or pleading for Gone With the Wind-style empathy. Casting Huppert helps—cinema’s reigning ice queen maintains a steely exterior as she refuses to acknowledge the horrors, which largely happen off-screen. When violence invades the frames, it’s disturbingly gentle; a scene where soldiers massacre a group of children is all the more upsetting for being deathly quiet. What Denis is aiming for is both ambitious and curious: serene pandemonium. White Material is so calm that when true horror shows its face, it’s too late.