Claire Denis’ phone is vibrating. The French director has just begun to field a question about White Material, her tense and haunting latest film about a white family in modern-day Africa. The topic of colonialism has come up and Denis is making it clear that her movie has nothing to do with the subject. Neither, for that matter, does it have to do with post colonialism, Africa, or her childhood, which was spent in several Francophone countries on the continent, including Cameroon, where White Material was shot. After a moment’s hesitation, she answers the call. It is Vincent Gallo. Spryly jumping from the sofa, Denis paces the room speaking loudly and warmly to the star of Trouble Every Day, her 2001 film about marriage and cannibalism (only with Denis would you find such a pairing). “Vincent! Big hugs!” I am not ungrateful for the interruption.
Claire Denis is easily one of my favorite directors. She is not a generous interview subject. The source of her reticence, however, isn’t easily parsed: Denis traffics in images, actions – and bodies and landscape – over dialogue. When a character does dabble in verbal exposition, the result can sound forced. (“They were weird, threatening,” says one character in White Material about two boys wielding spears and machetes.) Her answers in person, similarly, seem bullied out of her consciousness.
Denis’ films take on Big Ideas, like marriage (Trouble Every Day), discipline (Beau Travail), and loyalty (35 Shots of Rum), and show how those conditions of being function – or start to break down – under extreme pressure. White Material, starring the alarmingly sensual Isabelle Huppert as the coffee farmer Maria Vial, who’s struggling to retain her land and workers in the midst of a looming civil war, is about stubbornness – and, therefore, about the limits of rationality.
Dread is built into the structure of the film. As it cuts backwards and forwards in time over a period of two days, you’re always aware that Maria’s decision to guard her coffee plantation – rather than flee from the fast approaching rebel army – cannot but end badly. And yet, however blind to this reality she might seem, you find yourself supporting her decision. In exchange, Denis rewards you with a powerful and devastating film.
I heard White Material was adapted from The Grass is Singing, a novel by Doris Lessing. How loyal did you stay to Lessing’s novel, and what did you change? We didn’t adapt it at all. At the beginning, Isabelle told me, ‘There is a novel written by Doris Lessing I like very much, maybe you should adapt it.’ It was like an indication. She was saying, ‘Let’s go to Africa together.’ I said, ‘Ah, not this novel.’ This novel, not only do I like it, I used the spirit of it when I did my first film, Chocolat, and I am certainly not going to adapt it again. Politically, also, I thought it was completely wrong to adapt a novel that takes place in South Africa before the Second World War when no one was expecting a man like Nelson Mandela would change and transform everything completely. I would never do that. Never, never. Even to work with Isabelle. So I said, ‘No, I’m going to invent a story of today and that’s it. It will take place in Africa and it will maybe be inspired by what Doris Lessing meant, sometimes, about her definition of stableness.’ But it has nothing to do with The Grass is Singing, frankly.
So you wrote the screenplay. Yes.
The film is post-colonial, or post-post colonial, and I was reminded of a several literary classics: the mounting dread and horror of Heart of Darkness, the madness of Jean Rhys, the topography of Passage to India. Was the film in any way a continuation of, or a return to, that dialogue? No, I wanted nothing like that. The Conradian experience of Africa was far from me at that moment. It’s very masculine and it was not my point of view, although I like Conrad very much. It’s not my vision of Africa today, even of a hundred years ago, I would say. It’s a great novel but what it says I do not agree with in a way. Passage to India…it’s so typically British, you know? It has nothing to do with me. I think my history is more French.
Where does the phrase ‘white material’ come from? It’s something that exists in a lot of countries of the west coast [of Africa], even east coast. Two or three countries will be English speaking, and two or three countries will be French speaking, so they have this sort of slang with English words. At the very beginning, maybe like fifteen, twenty years ago, ‘white material’ was people who were selling undercover ivory. Then it became like ‘white trash,’ things belonging to white people. I didn’t invent it.
So everything white people were associated with became white material? Yes, when I was in Ghana, I remember walking in the market. French people would say, “Eh, la blanc,” or “Eh, whitey.” That’s normal.
What drew you back to Africa? You had made Chocolat, Beau Travail… Beau Travail was not linked to Africa. [Ed. note: it was filmed in Djibouti]
So… I just think it’s because Isabelle mentioned the novel by Doris Lessing. I had no idea of going back to Africa. I don’t need a film to go there, but it was a good thing, yeah?
Did you write the character of Maria with Isabelle always in mind? Of course. Every single molecule of air, every single dress, every single…We had the jewel made for her. Everything was made for her.
What is it about Isabelle as an actress that you thought would work well with the idea of Maria? She drives me crazy. It’s like being high on drugs. You don’t want to stop when it’s finished. I needed to go to rehab after filming. It’s very exciting because it’s a game she plays. It’s interesting.
[SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD]
Maria stays and stays and stays in spite of every warning that she has to leave. Do you think her character knows on some level that this is all going to end horribly? No, she thinks that if she bets it will work, it will work. She doesn’t want to imagine a bad ending. She wants everything to work, but suddenly she realizes, after the pharmacy has been attacked, that things are going faster than she thought. Then suddenly she is slightly too late. She thought she was in control, but then she’s too late.
At the end of the film, Maria takes a machete and kills her father-in-law. Where does this urge come from? They’re both left, and I think she feels someone is responsible for letting everything happen. Maybe it’s weakness, or everyone’s blindness. But she needs to do something terrifying.
I wanted to ask about The Tindersticks. How did you first discover them? A long time ago. It was their first record and they came to Paris for a gig. I went and I knew. That was it for me. Strangely enough, they also sort of understood me. It’s a good chemistry between us.
The Vials are very much latter-day colonialists, whether they realize it or not. Was colonialism, or what remains of it in contemporary Africa, something you were thinking about while filming? Colonialism exists. It’s not something I bring. It’s there, it exists, a part of history. It left traces and scars, you know? I don’t need to think about it. It’s there.
You grew up in Africa. Yes.
How much did you draw on your own experiences? This film is not my experience at all. My father was not a farmer. I was never working on a plantation. My father was a very dedicated man who fought for independence. I was in contact with intelligent people, the people who were trying to move in politics. My childhood made me grow because in Africa I could…I was explained things, you know? I was never like this white family, never.
Place is almost an extra character in your films. How did you find the location you used in this film? I searched a long time. I went to Ghana, I went to Kenya, and in the end, I always disliked the plantations I found. Then I found three plantations in the west of Cameroon that were in great shape, with great trees. I decided to go there.
Did filming in Cameroon present any unusual difficulties? It’s not difficult, it’s part of the film. A film is difficult. To film in Paris or New York is difficult. Each film contains its own obstacles. Africa offers obstacles but a lot of great opportunities. To shoot in Cameroon was opening, to share the crew with Cameroonian technicians, actors – all this was such an opening thing.