White Material (Denis, 2010)

I finally give Claire Denis’s White Material, my favorite film of 2010, a thorough analysis in the form of a Blu-ray review for Slant. While I still feel Claire Denis films need be seen theatrically for maximum impact, this stellar high-definition version will have to do when that luxury isn’t afforded.

LAFF: Day #7

June 24, 2010

WHITE MATERIAL (dir. Claire Denis, 2010)

Clarie Denis’ White Material could be the seminal cinematic examination of European colonialism in modern Africa and the impending trauma’s/ramifications plaguing all ends of the social spectrum. Set in an unnamed African country during a relentless rebel uprising, Denis’ film intricately follows white Coffee plantation owner Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) as she attempts to salvage her crop and homestead despite the growing violence and unrest. But this is not a character study, or even an allegory, but the almost primal story of a place experiencing a violent moment of transition, and all the hidden instinctual layers revealed in the process.

Denis takes what could have been a concise trajectory and constructs a serpentine narrative path of haunting flashbacks, breathtaking tangents, and hypnotic set pieces weaving every character into a devastatingly incomplete national timeline. She connects the melodrama of Vial’s crumbling family unit with the textures of wealth, focusing on the objects of power and the sudden disavowal of their impact on social standing and safety. The film instills a deep sense of menace in every scene, thanks in large part to Yves Cape’s incredibly crisp cinematography and Stuart Staples’ foreboding score that sweeps through the trees like a mighty wind.

By the end of White Material, a devastating ideological revolution has swept away all the political posturing and stereotypes and unveiled the core human elements residing under the surface. Poverty, guilt, and ignorance form the densely intricate map of a country’s dying soul, one without easily defined borders and reference points. Denis’ film is a staggering cinematic achievement, but more importantly it’s a crucial document on the diverging interpretations and gaps of a revolution that will not be televised.

DOG SWEAT (dir. Hossein Kershavarz, 2010)

Subtle intersecting stories of regular people experiencing challenges with love, sex, desire, and purpose. The interesting hook in Dog Sweat comes from a cultural standpoint, as the film is entirely shot on location in Tehran, Iran, where the filmmakers illuminate the universal emotions and issues defining a country plagued by censorship, religious fundamentalism, and stereotype. The images, while sometimes dramatically inert, are always visually fascinating, documenting a bustling city of everyday people living under the shadow of international judgement and local terror.

Smuggled out of Iran on a computer hard-drive by it’s director Hossein Keshavarz, Dog Sweat is a deeply passionate film that occasionally delves into narrative contrivance but always exhibits an honest look at human interation. Some of the film’s stories gain more resonance than others, specifically the arranged marriage between a closeted gay man and a singer with her own secret. Their mutual compromise is something tragic, but completely understandable considering the social and economic pressures put upon them. Yet other characters, like a boozed- out player who turns fundamental when his mother is struck by a car, become forced and uneven as they progress. This pattern ultimately lessons the impact of Dog Sweat, but the filmmaker’s goal and vision are undeniably important, even if their narrative decisions don’t always add up.

DOWN TERRACE (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2010)

Finally, a late night screening that lives up to it’s schedule slot. Ben Wheatley’s gangster film takes pitch black comedy to a new level, evolving from uncomfortable family comedy to diabolical Shakespearean tragedy. “Down Terrace” stays with this extremely conniving subset from start to finish, watching them conduct criminal operations with the same devastating indifference as they do life-changing family decisions. In truth, one can’t be distinguished from the other.

During certain moments, situations turn from casual to grave in a matter of seconds, words and facial expressions merging together to form a sort of unspoken code of deception. As the bodies pile up, Wheatley’s cyclical evolution of evil and comes full circle, leveling the playing field with heinous acts of retribution. That these moments stem from complete distrust, ego, and manipulation is expected, but the subtlety with which they are ordered and carried out is striking.

Down Terrace stays true to it’s evil heart, conducting a symphony of violence so effortless it’s almost as if the filmmakers themselves are taking part in the carnage. This is problematic for a film about glaring gaps in morality, but ultimately it’s all part of the nasty fun. There are shallow graves for both discomfort and comedic anarchy, and the audience gets to see both bury each other under a mountain of betrayal.

35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2009)

Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum infuses the textures, spaces, and shadows of a Parisian apartment building with a unique and baffling poetry. The hallways are cramped but inviting, the rooms warm with routine and knowingness. These places spin with unrequited love, miscommunication, and disappointment, slowly unveiling complex human relationships over time.

Streets and railways merely act as momentary drop off points, way stations for lives favoring an interior existence. Denis creates melancholy in the smallest details so her film swells with expanding possibility. Midway through the fleeting story, one haunting moment in a small club juxtaposes a lifetime of love, lust, and regret with the sensual sounds of The Commodores’ Night Shift. It’s a bravura cinematic slow dance flushed with unspoken and unseen romantic entanglement, the sensual highlight of a fragmented overarching shuffle.

Denis complicates her lyrical view of everyday life with a disjointed, alienating outlook on character interaction, breaking down dialogue sequences with jump cuts, temporal shifts, and jarring transitions. Unlike the recent films Summer Hours or Still Walking, 35 Shots of Rum never fully opens its characters up for inspection, gradually wearing down their outer layers only to reveal denser shields underneath. This approach doesn’t diminish the impact of the film, but it puts the viewer on the outside looking in, watching as gaps grow larger and questions become more intriguing than the answers.

While many have pointed out Denis’ film seems more about the journey than the destination, I’d argue it focuses on endings above all else. Lionel (Alex Descas) comes to grips with his daughter Josephine’s (Mati Diop) adulthood, while longtime friend Rene’s short retirement ends with mental and physical death. Gabrielle’s (Nicole Dogue) disappointing realization about Lionel contrasts Noe’s (Gregorie Colin) own emotional endgame with Josephine, yet each relationship represents a form of finality. Despite Denis’ adherence to linearity, these moments of change and realization define her film.

Admiration for 35 Shots of Rum does not come close to the praise most critics have bestowed on the film, but that’s all I can muster after one viewing. Denis’ visual approach, her characters, her expressions, all exist within a confounding universe that inevitably takes some getting used to. She challenges the viewer to look beyond the emotion of her characters, into a place where the redemptions and reflections of life reveal more uncertainty than closure. Ambiguity often produces the most complex resolutions, but in 35 Shots of Rum, this equivocacy often strangles the tangible meaning out of life’s little moments, leaving us beguiled by a jazz-like modern existence.