White Material, Claire Denis, 102 mins (15)

Isabelle Huppert is superb as a Frenchwoman clinging to her plantation in Africa in the midst of chaotic regime change

French director Claire Denis excels in two very different modes – the intimate and the apocalyptic.

Her last film, 35 Shots of Rum, was one of the best in Denis's intimate vein – a ruminative family portrait that offered a tender but unsentimental picture of togetherness. In her apocalyptic mode, however, Denis is focused on breakdown – of society, emotions and meaning. That's what you get in White Material, an African-set vision of collapse.

The setting is an unnamed country in the throes of regime change. Frenchwoman Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to sustain the coffee plantation she runs with her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert), but unknown to her, he has other plans. The country is tenuously under the control of a rebel militia whose figurehead, "the Boxer" (Denis regular Isaach de Bankolé), is on the run. With the regular army preparing to regain control, French forces have moved out, warning the remaining white residents that they're on their own if they stay behind. But Maria is determined to stay. Is she heroic, or self-serving and deluded? Denis keeps us wondering.

Despite the above, the story isn't quite so easy to sum up. No doubt you could map out a logical timeline for this flashback-laden drama – which is considerably less fragmented than some Denis films – but then, why would you? In Denis's work, everything operates in a perpetual present tense, in which you're always aware of the moment, or of a series of overlapping moments. Her stories don't pan out with strict coherence, but follow a fluid logic close to that of consciousness itself.

It's not easy to untangle Maria's progress – her various journeys, encounters with hostile militia, spats with André. But all these moments carry a heightened, anxiety-laden charge: they all take place in a continuous hyper-intensified Now, evoking the way that people experience periods of impending calamity.

Huppert is a specialist in such Now-ness, her undemonstrative immersion in her roles always suggesting characters who dissolve into the worlds they inhabit. Huppert, who evokes Maria's tension and drive with superb understatement, is also French cinema's specialist in isolation (see her loner heroine in last month's release Villa Amalia). Magnificent as she is opposite others, she is, above all, a great screen soloist, at her most commanding when playing women apart. Maria is often seen alone on an almost empty screen: her dealings with other characters are never engagements as such, but hurried negotiations. This is one of Denis's most provocative films, and seemingly a rather personal one: as the daughter of a French civil servant she grew up in Africa, an experience that inspired her 1987 debut feature Chocolate.

The subject of White Material is delicate: a white woman clinging to her parcel of African land as the colonial legacy crumbles (imagine how uncomfortable it would be to see a fiction film about heroic whites hanging on in Zimbabwe). The Africans she thought she knew have become an unpredictable threat to Maria: the guards who quiz her with contempt, the wandering platoons of child soldiers, the militant reggae DJ who declares, "for the white material, the party's over". Seeming to voice white European fears of blackness, the film plays on one level as a Heart of Darkness nightmare about Africa's revenge.

But as always with Denis, things are more complex. The director's long-standing engagement with black and African culture (from her immigrant drama No Fear, No Die to the Martiniquan background of 35 Shots) has also allowed her to explore ideas that in other film-makers might be construed as smacking of racist paranoia (her I Can't Sleep was about a gay, black serial killer). Co-written by Denis and Marie N'Diaye, a Goncourt-winning French novelist of Senegalese extraction, White Material addresses the untenable condition of latter-day colonialists clutching at questionable roots. However admirable Maria may be in her determination, she lives in a state of fevered denial, not least with regard to her indulged adult son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). With typical Denis perversity, this key character only emerges from bed some 40 minutes in, then turns from sullen slacker to feral loon in a flash, not altogether plausibly. (Besides which, Denis's odd casting of the heavily tattooed Duvauchelle has you wondering, distractingly, just how Manuel managed to get himself an armful of yakuza-style ink deep in central Africa.)

With Denis films, her perversity comes as part of the package, along with the brilliance. Cavils that certain things don't entirely work, or make sense, must sometimes be suspended – she works on different levels of abstraction and concreteness from most directors. As a result, it's easy to be wrong about her films. When I first saw 35 Shots, I thought it was minor Denis, and it took a while for its subtleties to dawn on me.

Conversely, White Material knocked me out on first viewing, but now I feel it doesn't really come off: its obliqueness feels more like narrative slackness, and the pay-off is alarming and abrupt after the slow accretion of incident. Still, even in her failed films, Denis has a rare knack of taking you to worlds that you wouldn't necessarily want to visit, and making you experience them with pitiless intensity.

Next Week:

In London River, Jonathan Romney sees Brenda Blethyn caught up in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015