“Starting With an Idea is Fake. It’s a Dead Form”: Claire Denis on White Material
Plenty of associations come to mind when one thinks of a Claire Denis film; the French auteur’s work is intelligent, nuanced, and frankly, often slow. Denis approaches her films like a sculptor, beginning with the giant block of matter that is a life (or lives) and whittling the irrelevant away until she finds a character’s essence. So it comes as something a surprise that the final act of Denis’ latest, White Material, plays out as something of a suspense thriller; Denis has worked in genre filmmaking before (notably Trouble Every Day), but typically inverts and eschews genre convention. However, while the suspense does truly build as White Material revs up for an unforgettable climax, nowhere in the film’s taut narrative does Denis lose track of her passion for character study.
Indeed, White Material features a protagonist who is as formidable and complex as any the filmmaker has yet put onscreen. Brought to life by Isabelle Huppert, Denis’ Maria Vial is a passionate believer in her family’s heritage — a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. She’s a wildly stubborn, irrational woman, refusing to leave the country as armed conflict between rebels and the army escalates; the rebels have no great affection for the country’s French-colonial contingent, and the army’s feelings are no warmer. As tensions go from bad to worse, Maria is faced with the sobering consequences of her decision to remain at her family’s plantation.
What’s striking about White Material is how the film toys with viewer identification subtly, yet masterfully; at the outset, the audience naturally sympathizes with Maria. This sympathy is no doubt engendered by the fact that the film’s director is a woman who herself lived in Africa for a long period of time (albeit in her childhood). As the film continues, the audience is forced to reexamine its attitude toward Maria, as well as her scheming ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) and troubled son (Nicolas Duvauchelle). I had the opportunity to discuss this, and more, with Denis at the Crosby Street Hotel recently.
Filmmaker: In your press notes, you mention that you had a lot of intentions for the film at the outset, and you had to jettison a lot of these ideas as the process of making the film went on. What did you have to jettison?
Denis: I think it would be a little pretentious to try to talk about process. Certain ideas for films are only ideas, and they turn out to be dry, they drop dead. Or they never bloom. To have an idea for a film, it’s a sort of decision: I finished this film, now I have an idea for my next project. Sometimes, it’s an intelligent decision. But for some reason, most of the time, it becomes an empty form, and I soon realize it was an idea that was strong at the moment just to help me believe I was in the process of doing something else, of leaving the film I finished, keeping busy. But most of the time it leads nowhere. So a film itself — something crystallizes for a film in a very cunning way. Sometimes it comes from out of the despair of not having found the right idea. Sometimes it’s because I’m struck by a desire to work with a certain actor or actress, and it’s immediate, and I have to make sure it will happen. Just thinking of that makes something come up. Sometime it’s reading a book. There is not a real process, I guess — just the fact that the only real thing is to run away from the last movie, to run away fast.
Filmmaker: Are you saying, in part, that the original idea that starts you off on a new project typically falls by the wayside, as other, more material elements of the project begin to truly interest you?
Denis: Yeah, because an idea is an idea to most often make me believe, in a shrewd way, that I am active, that I am working. But it’s a little bit fake, because film is not only the result of work — it needs work, but first there must be a drop of illumination, something I recognize. It’s not really a story, not really an idea, but this is where I have to search for a project. Sometimes it’s a person, as I said. In the case of White Material, Isabelle said, it’s stupid not to work together, years are going by, otherwise we’ll be dead. Because she was presenting me with an idea of a book to adapt, I rejected that idea because it seemed to be what I should easily do — I wanted to find a real reason to work with Isabelle. Something between her and me, a sort of relation.
Filmmaker: So where does your starting point tend to be for a new work? If starting with an idea —
Denis: Starting with an idea is fake. It’s a dead form. An idea for a film is, in my opinion, nothing. For me, there must be a sort of illumination of something that will crystallize in me. You can change ideas like you change t-shirts. It must be deeper. It must be a conviction.
Filmmaker: So filmmaking is an exploratory process for you — you don’t start with something you want to communicate, intellectually.
Denis: Somehow, it’s not very intellectual. It’s a sort of vague question I’m asking myself. This question, which I immediately feel I am in a sort of foggy state, and probably don’t have the will to approach through intelligence, but through a sort of tactile intuition. And then questioning that, and trying to explore the question, intelligently, through the film. Normally, I start stupid and the film makes me ask the question more and more intelligently.
Filmmaker: So in the case of White Material, what was the vague question you were asking yourself?
Denis: It’s a very — it’s vague because it’s a very deep question. What happened in the history of humanity between white and black people? Why is it possible that the relation between the people of Africa with black skin, the people who were considered maybe strong and wild, with a sort of bestiality — that’s why they could be exported like slaves, as if using your body was the only thing you could ask them. And using their body in both senses, for strength and endurance, and that also creates a sexiness, you know? Therefore, always relying on their body, never on their mind or spiritual creativity, you know? My question was, then, what is it to be white material, white people, who believe, today, in the modern world, that all this bullshit — slavery, things — are gone, far away, colonialism, racism no more, blah blah blah. And suddenly, to be confronted with black people who look at you and say – you’re white, you know? It’s not angelic for us. A white person could be dangerous. Could be — could lead us to a secret desire to brutalize that person.
Filmmaker: Watching the film — it’s as if there’s almost something oppressive just in the nature of a white person’s existence.
Denis: I think, not by nature. By historical nature. And I think maybe, going deeper, if I remember what Toni Morrison said — black and dark and darkness and obscure, all this sense goes with black. To have a black heart or black thoughts or dark intentions. I think she’s quoting Shakespeare. And suddenly white and clear eyes could be a sort of purity, immaculate. Angelic. A more spiritual, purer aspect of humanity.
Filmmaker: I know this is a bit of an easy question, but I have to ask – I know you spent time in Africa in your childhood. Did that inform the story in any way?
Denis: No, my childhood — yes, of course, I wouldn’t say — if someone spent his childhood in New York, or Hawaii, they’re not the same person. Someone who spends childhood in Africa has a different perspective on life. Also, I felt, as a white minority amongst blacks, who were a majority — I felt something that few people feel in Europe.
Filmmaker: I thought it was interesting how you kept so much of the political situation in the country, in the narrative, so backgrounded. It enabled the story to take on a more universal scope.
Denis: My main interest was what the character of Maria had to do before running away, or not. I thought, I started with the example of the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast at that time had a change of government, and there was a split in the country. The French community there was very important, cultivating cocoa and coffee. Most of them were working with workers of the northern Ivory Coast, who certainly were supposed to not be Ivoire-ian enough. So suddenly there was a sudden chase to figure out who was truly of the Ivory Coast. A civil war started, and the French army was sent to rescue French farmers. I saw a family saved with a helicopter, abandoning their farm and their workers. But I thought, let’s just make it a territory, not a country.
Filmmaker: One becomes increasingly frustrated at Maria’s refusal to leave, but I found that as the film went on, it became more and more bizarrely plausible that she would stay. I began to respect it even as I recognized how insane it was. What do you think prevents her from leaving?
Denis: I saw those images on TV, and when I started working on the script, the first scene I had in mind was the helicopter leaving, and the soldier asking Maria to leave. It was the last call. There would be no other chance for her. And from the point of view of the young soldier in the helicopter, she is like a little worm attached to the coffee tree. The soldier was saying, now we are leaving the country, so you will be on your own. When I started working on the script with Marie N’Diaye, both of us felt something against Maria, as if she was not really — as if she was too selfish, too demanding, too blind. But as always, it’s impossible not to make a sort of evolution with the character as we were on Earth with her. No more from the helicopter. When we started being with her, little by little I knew I would agree one hundred percent with her. She was trying to save not only her pride, but her belief that she was not — a strange belief that she was accepted there. A belief that she was not home, but accepted; even if there was a civil war, she was not an enemy, she was a part of that land. Therefore, when the mayor tells her — it’s your fault, remember, you’re white material, you’re different – people would never trust you completely, for that reason.
Filmmaker: It’s almost like she buys into the colonialist myth so fully.
Denis: Mm-hmm. Although she has gone over that, you know? Me, for instance, I was with Marie in Ghana, I took her to visit a coffee plantation in Ghana. Marie is black, French, and she didn’t grow up in Africa, so her knowledge is not the same as mine. We were walking in the market, and I was the one who recognized all the smells, who understood pidgin English, who noticed who was from Ghana, who was from the Ivory Coast, things like that, and I was enjoying that feeling. She was like the perfect stranger — but she was the one who was saluted by people — “Hey sister!” And me? No. I was not “sister,” you know? I felt — I told her, it’s strange for me.
Filmmaker: Did the character of Maria change at all when Isabelle came on board?
Denis: I had been working with her in mind the whole time. She is such an intelligent actress that she knows to only ask very precise questions about concrete details. Do you think this woman is rich? If the tractor is old and the house is very old, she must really need the money from the coffee, right? And then we were doing wardrobe and driving lessons with the motorbike and the truck and tractor, and I wanted her to see how to work in a coffee plantation, so she came in advance. I wanted her to feel at ease in that environment. I told her, and she told me, I don’t want to be sweating, I want to be at ease. It’s physical work but your body is used to it, you’re not going to sweat. In certain films of white people in Africa they sweat all the time.
Filmmaker: That sequence of her showing the new workers how to work the beans was great, it had a strong sense of the corporeal. There was an intimacy to it.
Denis: Yeah. She learned how to do that. I think Isabelle is intelligent, so she knows that detail is important. Not to ask if a scene — how to play a scene — she’s not psychologically interested in the character, she’s interested in what she’s doing. Is she in a hurry? Is she worried for her son? She’s not someone who wants to know from the director, does the character feel guilty, and so on, no. And I think me neither. It’s better to be in the mood of a character.