Property and propriety are the rhyming themes of Claire Denis' new drama White Material, a fresh breeze passing through cinemas that have come to resemble mausoleums in recent months. The territory under dispute here is a coffee plantation in a nameless African state: the Ivory Coast, in actuality, though cineastes will recognise some elements - chiefly, the child soldiers - from the Liberia of Johnny Mad Dog and others - the constant threat of trespass and worse - from the Zimbabwe of Mugabe and the White African. The plantation is named for and overseen by Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) and her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert); with civil war breaking out around them, and André threatening to sell his share, Maria strives to keep the business running, ignoring the advice of the departing French peacekeepers to leave and instead recruiting workers sympathetic to the rebels' cause.
There's another prominent arrival at the plantation gates, too: The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), a near-mythic figure commemorated in murals depicting his pugilistic prowess, and characterised by the jamais k.o. (never defeated) tattoo he sports on his inside forearm. The Boxer has dragged himself onto Maria's land, hoping to give himself time to recover from the bullet he's taken to the gut. When one of his fellow rebels says of the plantation "it's just white material", we grasp just how easily Café Vial can be reclaimed or ripped asunder, sent up in smoke: no film has ever managed to make Huppert appear this tiny and blanched, this vulnerable within the frame. With her golden tresses and cotton frocks, her Maria has as much right to be here as Alice does being in Wonderland, and the dramatic heft of White Material derives from this rencontre between worlds that might at first seem irreconcilable.
Denis's storytelling remains one of the foremost acquired tastes in international cinema. Again here, she plows a furrow every bit as singular and single-minded as that of Maria Vial, taking snapshots of what lies to the left or right or just behind her characters; her cinema, sensory and experiential, concerns itself less with narrative niceties than with what it might be like to be in these particular spots at these particular times. A certain level of going with the flow is required, which can be a struggle for anyone as rigid and linear in their thinking as I am: I felt bad about not liking 35 Shots of Rum - Denis' previous film, which made many critics' year-end lists - but not nearly as much as I felt restless during the film itself. These movies tend towards the nebulous, and you could argue that one of White Material's failings is an inability to nail down what the rebels are fighting for - or who they're fighting against, exactly.
Still, perhaps because of its origins - Denis first planned to adapt Doris Lessing's novel "The Grass is Singing", and the script for White Material was co-written with the African-born French novelist and playwright Marie N'Diaye - the new film displays greater urgency and progression, more cause and effect, than this filmmaker has been accustomed to. In novelistic fashion, White Material sets out the differing reactions of its central family unit to this state of siege. While Maria attempts to keep the plantation functioning, and André does his best to appease the locals, venerable old Henri Vial (Denis regular Michel Subor, the embodiment of tubby colonial indifference) sinks further into his bathtub, and the couple's son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is reborn as a shaven-headed, shotgun-touting avenger.
What Denis brings to the material (pun intended) is an entirely cinematic sensibility: one sequence towards the end - which finds Maria and the remaining workers settling in on the ranch as night falls, all of them aware they may yet face the possibility of violent death before dawn - could, subtitles aside, be lifted wholesale from any Howard Hawks Western. If you feel you know where you are with White Material, it's because you feel Denis knows exactly where she is, too: the director grew up in Africa, and the continent's colonial past formed the subject of her 1987 debut Chocolat. I like her resonant deployment of 80s pop standards (the Commodores' "Night Shift" in 35 Shots; Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse" here), and her casting here is as assured as it's been in years: Maria Vial provides another great role for Huppert, in part because it gives this great actress, weathered and beautiful in a fashion beyond the ken of Californian plastic surgeons, such scale to operate on.
At points in White Material, Huppert is essentially playing an action heroine, one who gets to drive scooters and wave away passing helicopters before leading a one-woman assault on the patriarchy, like a petite version of Martin Sheen's Willard in Apocalypse Now. (By the end, we're left in little doubt Maria Vial has failed in her attempts to maintain her independence from the violence encircling her.) Yet at others, she's obliged to give bedside pep talks to the slacker Manuel, or reproach the errant Andre for making financial arrangements without her say-so - in brief, engaged in the sort of domestic business that could be taking place in any Parisian suburb. It's in this way that Denis and N'Diaye avoid exoticising or slandering Africa unduly; in the end, the continent is no more heart of darkness than a home, a refuge, like any other. The question this searching and engrossing film poses is: whose home?
White Material opens in selected cinemas from Friday.