It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Isabelle Huppert, small and slender, embodies the strength of a fighter. In so many films, she is an indomitable force, yet you can't see how she does it. She rarely acts broadly. The ferocity lives within. Sometimes she is mysteriously impassive; we see what she's determined to do, but she sends no signals with voice or eyes to explain it. There is a lack of concern about our opinion; she will do it, no matter what we think her reasons are.
In Claire Denis' "White Material," she plays Maria Vial, a French woman running a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. The land has fallen into war, both against the colonialists and among the insurgents. In an opening scene, a helicopter hovers above Maria and French soldiers advise her to evacuate quickly. This she has no intention of doing. As it becomes clear that her life is in danger, she only grows more opaque. Huppert's approach is valuable here, because any attempt at a rational explanation would seem illogical. I believe her attachment to the land has essentially driven her mad.
This isn't even her farm. It was owned by her former father-in-law and run by her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert). Now she is in day-to-day charge and moves with confidence. The way she dresses makes a statement: She likes simple sandals and thin print sundresses that make her seem more at home than durable clothing would. She doesn't even much like hats or sunglasses. She runs through fields like a child. She drives a truck, runs errands, goes into town to hire substitute labor when her workers walk away in fear of the war. There's a scene where she all but tries to physically restrain departing workers.
They try to be reasonable with her. Yes, it will be a good crop of coffee beans, but there will probably be no way to get it to market. Anarchy has taken over the land. Child soldiers with rifles march around, makeshift army stripes on their shirts, seeking "The Boxer" (Isaach De Bankole), a onetime prizefighter and now the legendary, if hardly seen, leader of the rebellion. When Maria is held at gunpoint, she boldly tells the young gunmen that she knows them and their families. Her danger doesn't seem real to her. There is no overt black-white racial tension in the film; the characters all behave as the situation would suggest.