As we all know, when it comes to Christopher Lambert, there can be only one. However, writing about every movie in an actor's 30+ year filmography is a big job - too much for a single man who's got bills to pay and Mexican restaurants to be forcibly ejected from. So for this installment of the epic Lambertathon, John Cribbs passes the torch to Marcus Pinn, the best man for the job when it comes to covering Lambert's surprising, late-career collaboration with the great Claire Denis.
When you have time, check out Pinn's various Denis-related articles over at Pinnland Empire, notably his interview with Denis herself (!) and his absolutely essential The Cinema of Claire Denis Told Through Images & Stills but first: it's time for a new kind of magic. Nothing in the world has prepared you for this. Marcus Pinn is building a fortress for the ultimate takeover... of your mind!
This is his shared but still personal...
claire denis, 2009
I remember there being a lot of excitement around the release of White Material amongst arthouse fans because it was the first collaboration between two modern French arthouse powerhouses in the form of Isabelle Huppert and Claire Denis. While Huppert has worked with a lot of important French filmmakers like Claude Charbol, Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Luc Godard, Maurice Pialat, Francois Ozon and Olivier Assayas, as a director, Denis usually sticks with her close-knit family of stock actors: Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Gregoire Colin, Michele Subor, etc. Even when she branches off and works with someone outside of her immediate circle, they eventually become a part of her cinematic family (Vincent Lindon) or there's some personal interwoven connection.
For example: Denis Lavant, who starred in Denis' Beau Travail, is an actor commonly associated with Leos Carax, who is a close personal friend of Denis. Mireille Perrier, another early Leos Carax regular, went on to co-star in Denis' first film, Chocolat. A more recent example of this is Lola Creton appearing in Bastards. Creton is fairly connected to Claire's friend Olivier Assayas, having starred in Goodbye First Love (directed by Assayas' wife Mia Hansen-Løve) and Assayas' own Something in the Air.
Isabelle Huppert in White Material is no different; Denis cast Huppert's daughter, Lolita Chammah, in her surreal 2004 film The Intruder, so that's probably where that connection stemmed from. As far as I can think, Valerie Lemercier was the only prominent "outside" actor to work with Denis up until Christopher Lambert, who co-starred with Huppert in Denis' 2009 drama about the fate of an African-based/white-owned coffee plantation (run by Huppert and Lambert) in the midst of an African civil war.
It still seems weird that Christopher Lambert acted in a Claire Denis movie, and in a fairly meaty supportive role, unlike his brief appearance in Hail, Caesar! Personally, I don’t understand why there wasn't more talk about the Lambert/Denis collab. When you think about it, Huppert and Denis were bound to link up at some point given their various connections and importance in French cinema.* But Lambert being cast in White Material came out of left field as far as I'm concerned. Lambert and Denis were both born to French natives and spent part of their childhood in other countries (Switzerland and colonial French Africa, respectively) so there's that (super-vague) connection. They were both up for their first and only César Award in the 80's - Lambert winning Best Actor for Subway, Denis nominated for Best First Work with Chocolat - but still, Connor MacLeod isn't supposed to show up in the world of Claire Denis.
There have certainly been more random collaborations in the world of cinema, and Lambert had an eclectic body of work before linking up with a filmmaker like Denis. But to me, and the rest of the world, he's most commonly associated with the Highlander movies. After that, he's the ex of Diane Lane (my first childhood crush). And after that, he's Raiden from Mortal Kombat. None of those keywords (Highlander/Diane Lane/Mortal Kombat) have anything to do with Claire Denis, which is why their collaboration seems so strange to me. Good-strange, but still... strange.
Christopher Lambert is an actor I grew up watching. Anytime the first Highlander would come on TBS as a kid, I'd put the remote down and watch it without fail. I got my dad to take me to the theater to see Highlander II. Mortal Kombat was a regular video store rental between me and my friends at sleepovers, and I remember Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes coming on HBO in the 80's quite a bit. Lambert also holds an extra badge of "coolness" in my eyes because he co-starred alongside Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Kid Frost in Gunmen, a movie that eluded me as a kid because the soundtrack, which I owned and listened to regularly, was easier to find than the actual movie.
So it's clear I have some pretty strong nostalgic connection with Lambert.
And for those of you who don't know or don't frequent my site, I am absolutely obsessed with Claire Denis. She's probably my favorite filmmaker. If you refer to parts Four and Five of my (as yet incomplete) Whole History Of My Life series, you'll see I have a pretty strong personal/nostalgic connection with Claire Denis as well. From my discovery of her work through my love of perusing video stores as a kid to befriending one of her stock actors (Alice Houri), I think it's safe to say I'm a true fan. I'm such a fan that I have three podcast appearances coming up in the near future to discuss this very film (Flixwise and CriterionCast) or her entire body of work (Wrong Reel.) White Material is also important to me, because it was the first new Denis release I saw in the theater outside of a retrospective screening. As a diehard Claire Denis fan, that's important.**
White Material has an interesting relationship with the rest of the director's body of work and served as a sort of bookend up until the release of Bastards in 2013. Since her 1989 debut Chocolat, Claire Denis returns to Africa every 10 years - Beau Travail in 1999 and White Material in 2009 - as part of what seems like an unofficial anniversary.*** I use the word "return" because prior to Chocolat, Denis spent some of her childhood in West Africa and it clearly had a profound impact on her. Half of her films feature characters that are African (Chocolat, Beau Travail, White Material) or have some kind direct/indirect connection to the continent itself (No Fear No Die and I Can't Sleep).
And speaking of Claire Denis and Africa, I'd like to use this time to clear up the connection she has with the continent. While she spent a good portion of her youth in various African countries (her father was a civil servant), she isn't exactly "from" Africa like some people tend to think (I've come across many uninformed movie blogs that confuse the issue). This is something certain people want to believe, probably because it makes her seem more exotic and less "white," sort of like Charlize Theron being South African. Just like how some people like to believe Terrence Malick lived in seclusion away from Hollywood for two decades between Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. He didn't. Just like Claire Denis isn't "from" Africa. That would be like claiming Christopher Lambert is from New York, just because he was born there.
That's not to say Denis doesn't have a personal connection to the subject matter. Like France in Chocolat or Daiga in I Can’t Sleep or Toni in No Fear No Die, Huppert's Maria in White Material is the director's cinematic alter-ego to some extent. A lot of the unspoken questions and implications posed in the movie are things I imagine Denis herself might struggle with internally from time to time (or maybe not, perhaps I'm just speculating). Is it her place to focus predominantly on African/Caribbean (mostly male) characters when she herself is a white French woman? Does she have the right to consider Africa her "second home"?
I didn't fully understand White Material when I first saw it. This is evident if you go back and read my old review over at Pinnland Empire. I mean, I got what Denis was trying to do on some level, but it didn't stick with me like her other films. My love of Nenette and Boni and U.S. Go Home has already been documented on this site. The Intruder struck a chord with me as part of the plot has to do with organ transplantation, something I've dealt with both directly (I had a kidney transplant) and indirectly (my father also had a kidney transplant and my uncle had to have one of his kidneys removed due to a tumor growth). When I rank Claire Denis films, White Material is in the bottom half. Although a "bottom half" Claire Denis film is still better than most films as far as I'm concerned. I just have a stronger connection to a story about organ transplantation than one about a coffee plantation.
I'm also not the biggest fan of African-based films that have to do with war and genocide (I still have yet to see Beasts Of No Nation). It's like – I get it. War and Genocide. I get it. I'm not so blind and uninformed that I don't know certain parts of Africa are in fact war-torn and/or impoverished. But there's also a beauty to the continent that still has yet to really be tapped into by filmmakers. Admittedly, this issue is bigger than just Claire Denis and White Material. Even filmmakers from Africa get caught up in focusing on civil war and genocide rather than beauty, humor and just overall lighthearted subject matter. There are obviously some exceptions, but if you look at most of the prominent films to come out of the continent of Africa, they're all connected with similar subject matter concerning war and violence.
White Material isn't supposed to be a clear cut film - most Claire Denis films aren't. You're not supposed to walk away from it feeling like you have a grasp on everything. It's a messy story concerning misguided entitlement and a warped sense of an illusion of inclusion (on the part of Maria) to race relations/sexual politics between men and women (Lambert's character Andre has a biracial son from an affair with an African woman). This is also a movie that can be read the wrong way. Stories of Africa from the perspective of white people (like Denis) can be a little touchy, especially with black people who aren't familiar with her movies (the older I get the more I've come to discover the name Claire Denis doesn't hold the weight I thought it did outside of certain specific film circles). Even if Denis' understanding of the various African cultures, politics and people is exceptional (which it is), White Material can come off a little offensive/out of line to people who aren't in the know. To outsiders that are quick to judge, White Material could easily be grouped in with stuff like The Power Of One, Dry White Season, Cry Freedom, etc. You know – "the chosen innocent white protagonist in Africa" genre that was popular in the late 80's/early 90's.
To this day, I'm not the biggest fan of the official theatrical trailer that was cut for White Material. I remember a Caucasian friend of mine being "offended as a white person" after seeing the trailer at the IFC Center a few years back because he thought the movie looked as if it depicted all the African characters as either gun-totting savages and/or background figures while the white lady looked like the innocent victim. As much as I love Claire Denis, who I'm sure had nothing to do with the cutting of the trailer (I hope she didn't), I can see where my friend was coming from. In a movie centered around an unnamed war-torn African country, why focus on a white character? Don’t get me wrong, Maria and her family are in danger, so there is a level of sympathy that we're supposed to have for her. Huppert's performance is at times stoic and brave, so we look at her like a fighter. And even when she's at her most frightened and vulnerable, we still feel sympathy for the tiny French woman. But at the end of the day, I find myself more concerned with the African children in the film that are forced to fight and kill. They may come off as background characters, but their presence stuck with me the most.
The question is, did Claire Denis intend for Maria to be sympathetic? As I said, this is a movie about the filmmaker's personal struggle as to whether or not she, and other white people, "belong" in certain parts of this world or truly have an inborn connection to the area no matter how much they implement themselves - just imagine Lars Von Trier's Manderlay if it were pulled off successfully. And there really is no "yes" or "no" answer to that complex subject. Maria's coffee plantation has been around for generations, but does that give her the entitlement she thinks she has? The film is almost like Do The Right Thing told from the perspective of Richard Edson's character Pino, in a kind of warped way. There's also a strong connection to the subplot in Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala concerning Roshan Seth's character Jay. Although he identifies as Indian in terms of ethnicity, he considers his nationality to be Ugandan, yet he's forced out of Uganda (along with all the other Asian Indians) by Idi Amin. In White Material, Maria feels that Africa is her home yet she is no longer welcome and is looked at/treated as an outsider. White Material is the kind of film that's bound to bring up heated discussions, possibly even arguments.
As for Lambert, let's be clear – his presence goes beyond simply him just being in the movie as a novelty kind of thing. His acting in the role of Andre is very good, subtle yet memorable, not to mention underrated (Amy Taubin doesn't mention Lambert at all in her essay for the film's Criterion dvd). Andre is a complex character who's both scared (and a little spineless) and caring/concerned at the same time. No matter what his actions, he still has a genuine concern for the safety of his family under the conditions of a war breaking out. Lambert is so good in White Material that I sometimes forget it's him.
~ MARCH 24, 2016 ~
NEXT WEEK: Marcus shoots back 20 years to discuss Claire Denis' sophomore film No Fear, No Die, starring White Material's "Boxer" Isaach De Bankolé. Easily one of the Top 5 cockfighting movies of all time.
* Can we get a Juliette Binoche/Claire Denis collaboration soon?
** It was at a Claire Denis retrospective at the IFC Center leading up to the release of White Material that I bumped into Funderburg and got back in touch with him from that point on.
*** I feel like I'm the first person to make this discovery.