Claire Denis’s strongest movie in the decade since Beau Travail, her tense, convulsive White Material is a portrait of change and a thing of terrible beauty. The time is unspecified. The subject is the collapse of an unnamed West African state, and the protagonist, Maria, a French settler unflinchingly played by Isabelle Huppert, is the proprietress of a family-run coffee plantation.
White Material, which had its local premiere in the 2009 New York Film Festival, is impressionistic yet tactile—Denis presents an unclear situation with gorgeous immediacy. It’s as if, working with new DP Yves Cape, she has rediscovered film as film (as opposed to the more conventional narratives of 35 Shots of Rum, The Intruder, and Friday Night). White Material, which was shot in Cameroon, has an urgent lyricism predicated on fluid jump cuts, jittery camera moves, and extreme close-ups. This composition in continuous crisis and continual dread, written with Prix Goncourt–winning novelist Marie N’Diaye, is at once pre- and post-apocalyptic.
The first movement is boldly a-chron-ological. Denis begins at the end, with Maria’s plantation in flames and a revolutionary hero known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) an already cold corpse. Flashbacks are indistinguishable from flash-forwards as, traversing an enigmatic shifting terrain, Maria simultaneously flees from and returns (or re-returns) to the place she calls home. Rogue soldiers rule the roads; helicopters dispatched by evacuating French forces drop useless “survival kits.” The dying Boxer scrambles through the bush to find refuge on a doomed plantation; meanwhile, his activities are the subject of menacing radio transmissions issued by a mysterious DJ who also promises that “for [European] white material the party is over.” An abandoned church is filled with fly-covered corpses. Armed child soldiers creep down from the hills to explore Maria’s house while she vainly begs her workers to remain for the coffee harvest.
Astonishingly self-contained and remarkably girlish, Huppert anchors the movie. Maria is impossibly stubborn, apparently tireless, and totally fearless. She is resourceful enough to run a plantation (and even bring in the harvest) by herself and yet can’t face the reality of her situation. Alone in her incongruous pink calico frock, absolute in her rejection of France, she’s protected by her craziness . . . but only up to a point. Her ex-husband, André (Christophe Lambert), negotiates behind her back to sell the plantation. Her father-in-law (Michel Subor) is an invalid. Her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is an indulged, indolent princeling who sleeps through half the movie before waking up in a mad martial trance, like the surfer-soldier in Apocalypse Now—a movie that, in its imperial hubris and hallucinatory jungle madness, seems to haunt White Material. There are intimations of Jonestown as well—Denis’s verdant death-trip is rendered additionally lysergic by a spacey Tindersticks score.
To a degree, White Material is founded on a familiarity with the otherness of others, as well as a recognition of one’s own otherness. (Denis was raised in French-colonial Africa and has set several previous movies there; N’Diaye, the daughter of a French mother and Senegalese father, grew up in France.) But the movie’s refusal to tether its action to a particular time or place gives White Material a disturbing, ahistorical universality. It’s as if Denis were reimagining Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a chaotic, postcolonial race war in which the river reverses course: The continent’s lush, fecund savagery floods “civilization” to reclaim its own, including, in the end, Maria’s mind.
The sense of final days becomes that of final moments, with a particular way of life inexorably sloshing down the drain. As the movie’s protagonist is the only European woman we see, race is continuously apparent—she is a foreign body being expelled by her host in a bloody purge, just a bit of “white material” borne off in the raging current of history.
Race, history, and aesthetics are intertwined to discomfiting effect in Edward Bland’s 1959 manifesto The Cry of Jazz, newly restored by and screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives. Scarcely less abrasive now than when it first appeared, the 34-minute movie has a strong educational component; its dramatization of the passionate argument between black and white members of a Chicago “jazz appreciation club” is as provocatively stilted and crudely didactic as anything in Brecht (or Oscar Micheaux).
The Cry of Jazz is couched as a debate triggered when one of the whites carelessly equates jazz with rock ’n’ roll. A black musician named Alex proceeds to set him straight, then goes further to maintain that “the Negro alone created jazz.” The incredulous, hopelessly square ofays are incapable of understanding this essentialist position; they can’t comprehend what Alex means by “the hazard of being Negro” in America nor why he sees jazz as the triumph of the African-American spirit. His characterization of improvisation as “the joyous celebration of the present” in the face of a “futureless future” likewise whizzes over their heads.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack features extended passages of Sun Ra’s ensemble making joyfully raucous noise over shots of impoverished ghetto streets and roach-infested slum apartments. (In the movie’s funniest joke, an example of blandly swinging “white” jazz is juxtaposed with a woman grooming her poodle.) The argument only grows fiercer once Alex and another black intellectual maintain that “the Negro is the only human American.” No longer dismissive, the whites are now outraged, wondering what all this has to do with jazz. “Everyone is equal!” they shout, only to be informed that “you’re not our equals in suffering.” (Responding to complaints that The Cry of Jazz was an anti-white film, Voice critic Jonas Mekas wrote, “It’s about time somebody made one.”)
The Cry of Jazz first appeared alongside quasi-Beat productions like Shadows and Pull My Daisy (with which it’s showing at Anthology), and was filmed shortly before the five-part 1959 TV documentary The Hate That Hate Produced introduced white America to the Nation of Islam. Unacquainted with Beat poetry, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Elijah Muhammad, or any expression of black cultural nationalism, Bland’s white jazz buffs are getting a taste of the ’60s, four years before the poet LeRoi Jones (not yet Amiri Baraka) shocked Down Beat readers with an essay arguing that “Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made.”