Home > Uncategorized > The Arrogance of Ghosts

The Arrogance of Ghosts

Life has a funny way of overtaking your plans. I have been working on numerous ideas for numerous posts, all of which I am confident will come to fruition, I’m just not sure when. In order to be a critic it is not enough to think lofty, critical thoughts, you have to write. You have to communicate your ideas, give them structure and presentation. It is that translation to the blank page that I, like so many other would-be writers, often struggle with, especially when I have only myself to answer to when I fail to post anything at all. The only solution is to actually write.

So, while those great ideas I promise I have continue to gestate a little longer, I will share my immediate reactions to the film I saw this evening: Claire Denis’s White Material. The film – in which a white coffee plantation owner (Isabelle Huppert) in an unnamed African country refuses to acknowledge the chaos that is consuming everything around her – is visceral, disturbing, problematic, and ultimately astonishing. The story is nonlinear, but, unlike so many gimmick films, the temporal fragmentation yields an emotional cohesion. Every edit untethers us, but the stunning cinematography by Yves Cape holds us every to image. Cape bleeds the vivid colors of the landscape (most of which is Cameroon, where Denis spent some of her childhood) onto the film, giving the scenery an immense physicality, but one the camera never fully settles in to. In White Material, the camera does not just establish setting and align our gaze: it floats. We float among the buildings of the plantation, and through the dense forests, and along the red dirt roads. And as we float, we notice that many of the characters, particularly Huppert’s Maria Vial, are floating too. We realize they are floating because they do not belong to that place; they are ghosts. Ghosts that are too arrogant to know that they are dead.

Arrogance is the principle subject of White Material. Maria and her family ignore the pleas of fleeing French aid workers, choosing to stay to harvest their coffee crops. In voiceover, Maria curses those leaving as weak and cowardly, referring to them as the ‘dirty whites.’ That Maria has white skin almost seems lost on her at times. She believes herself to be a part of the country and the land as any dark-skinned African, taking for granted the privileges of the old colonial order she continues to enjoy, and to which she will cling to fiercely as the story unfolds. Special attention is paid to the possessions of the Vial family (the ‘white material’ of the title), and one of the film’s most unsettling sequences comes when two child soldiers – searching for a rebel leader known as The Boxer – sneak into the Vial house, and rifle through their things. One boy sits unassuredly in a plush chair, while another timidly caresses tiny porcelain figurines. These things that define the Vials’s way of life are completely alien to these boys. More than skin color, it is material wealth that separates, and isolates, the Vials from those around them, making them a target for resentment and violence. Before leaving, the two boys steal a dress and some jewelry.

The actual relations between the Vials is never explicitly spelled out, but rather left for us to piece together. Over time we learn that Maria is divorced from Andre, whose unwell father, Henri, is the ‘proprietaire’ of the plantation. Together Maria and Andre have a son, Manuel, whose descent is the film’s most harrowing. Andre has another son, Jose, by a black woman, Lucie, towards whom Maria is openly hostile.

The ambiguity of these relationships on screen underscores how strained they have become among the characters without them fully realizing it, as if their bonds have rotted away from the inside. That rot underscores the film’s major theme – all relationships, to family, to society, to place, are built upon our assumptions, and that the basis for those assumptions can shift away under our feet, leaving us in freefell.

Less than a week after the shooting in Arizona, Denis’s film carried a special weight for me. We take so much for granted, and we assume so much – that our taunts, and hyperbole, and causal invocation of violence will have no consequences. That guns will only go off on television and in the neighborhoods we never go to. That the mentally ill whom we routinely deny treatment to will stay hidden out of sight. But all that can change in an instant, leaving us to seek understanding or sink into denial.

I am not trying to offer any political prescriptions. The amount of petty bickering over the most superficial aspects of the crime has left me dispirited. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times today, “The overwhelming majority of the people who claim to be so outraged by last weekend’s shooting… will take absolutely no steps, none whatsoever, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. And similar tragedies are coming as surely as the sun makes its daily appearance over the eastern horizon because this is an American ritual: the mowing down of the innocents.” We are content to assign blame, or to absolve everyone (and saying that acts of violence are inexplicable is just as lazy as rushing to the easiest explanation), but rarely do we look inside. We float in our own arrogance.

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