ONE OF THE BEST NOVELS of 2010 was Marlene Van Niekerk's Agaat, about the uneasy relationship between an aging white homesteader in South Africa and the black South Africans upon whom her livelihood depends. The new French film White Material begins with a similar premise, and a similarly single-minded protagonist: It's set in an unspecified, conflict-riddled African country, on a coffee plantation run by a white woman determined to see her crops to harvest even as the countryside erupts in violence and chaos.
Clashes between rebels and military forces have made life decidedly unsafe for Maria (Isabelle Huppert, weathered and delicate at the same time), but she's desperate to finish harvesting her coffee crop, even as her work crew abandons the plantation. Her efforts to find and pay new workers are undermined by her shifty ex-husband and creepy, layabout son; meanwhile, a wounded rebel leader takes shelter on the farm.
While the politics driving the brutality and bloodshed are left vague, it's clearly a bad time to be white—the film takes its title from a line uttered in a rebel DJ's rambling, reggae-backed political rant: "As for the white material, the party's over/No more cocktails on shaded verandas while we sweat water and blood." But despite its loaded subject matter, White Material is not terrifically interested in good guys and bad guys—Maria and her employees are equally optionless, trapped between two overwhelmingly violent forces. Maria's not taking sides. She just really, really wants to harvest that coffee.
Under the direction of Claire Denis (1988's Chocolat), the film is tense with menace, but it's oddly sterile, too—the poverty depicted is thoroughly sanitized, its characters largely symbolic. This serves to make its images of brutality all the more shocking—a row of corpses, face down; two dead kids in a bathtub, water faintly tinged with red. It's impossible to make any sense of Maria—her actions an insane response to an insane world—but as a tableaux of dumb brutality and all-consuming violence, White Material is profoundly effective.