Somewhere in Africa, Maria (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her estranged husband (Christophe Lambert), her slacking son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and her ex-father-in-law on a coffee plantation. A civil war is brewing around them, with rebel guerrilla forces in the bush taking advantage of the power vacuum to terrorise the inhabitants before the government troops arrive to clean up what is left. Maria will have none of all this violence and political turmoil, and insists on harvesting the crop on her plantation – even if she has to do it all by herself. It is only a couple of days more work, she tells herself. But the civil war seeps in through the cracks in her walls to end her life as she knew it.
As you watch the film, you can not help but wonder what life is like for European settlers in Africa today. It must vary greatly, from living an opulent colonial-style life to living modestly as a missionary. But whatever they are doing, they are always very visible. Besides people just being people, there must also be mixed feelings about their presence (or, “white material”, as the locals call the Europeans in the film). The director herself has at least some first hand experience in the matter, having grown up in the West African Cameroon as the daughter of a French civil servant. But the film is not her story and we are left to guess where the tale takes place.
Maria looks like she is in an in between state of comfort – they have the plantation, which is operational, but has a rough country life with very few luxuries themselves (unless you compare them to the day labourers). But the animosity against her and her family is clearly there, and is starkly contrasted with her obsessive drive to work and succeed, a drive which would build up the country rather than destroy it, as is happening around her. There is an inherent contradiction in both the needing and the despising of the white settlers as embodied by Maria. Not only is she the stark reminder of a colonial past, but also today’s capitalist in an impoverished nation.
￼The apocalyptic air which blows over the land affects the family members in a way which becomes clearer and clearer as the dust settles. By then, you will also realise that there is no moral lesson to be learned in this blood-stained chaos. Maria works as hard as she can, living in the fringe of her broken family. Not only does everyone tell her to leave, she even has a French army helicopter circling her head at some stage, telling her to get out of there, dropping survival packages she thinks she does not need.
Maria is a leader without followers. Her courage becoming recklessness, her determination becoming obsession. Her inability to form intimate relations has pushed her into an illusion of untouchability, as if nothing can happen to her anymore. The world can sort itself out, if she can just get on. Even when she feels tenderness for her son or for the wounded rebel leader “the boxer” (played by the always cool Isaach de Babkolé), it is too little and too late. She is not capable of really helping anyone, not even herself. If she is a metaphor for historic progress (from a cold colonialism to a cold capitalism), then Claire Denis seems to be suggesting that Africa is in deep trouble. But however you care to interpret the film, if at all, it is a rough ride leaving you in a dusty, grainy confusion.
NB Claire Denis came to present her film at the French premiere in the Cinema du Pantheon (Paris V) on March 23rd, 2010. Thank you, Ms Denis, for coming and answering our questions with such dedication. It was a real treat.