White Material: The Postcolonial Unconscious and the Violence of Intimacy
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This article examines the interdependency of interracial violence and intimacy in the postcolonial era in Claire Denis’s White Material (2009). Informed by psychoanalysis and Fanon, it demonstrates that the unspoken legacy of colonialism continues to produce forms of interracial alienation resolvable into forms of intimacy only in violent encounter.
Over the thirty-two years of its elaboration to date, Claire Denis’s cinematic oeuvre has been characterized above all by its exploration of “difference and identity,” as one scholar neatly put it in a recent discussion of the filmmaker in the film journal Black Camera. Denis’s inclusion in such a journal underscores the role that questions of race in particular have played in her cinematic reflections on sameness and difference, belonging and alienation. As critics never tire of mentioning – perhaps because Denis herself speaks so willingly of her personal life in interviews –, the persistence of questions of race in Denis’s films is unsurprising given her biography: born in Paris to French parents, Denis spent her childhood and early adolescence in several African countries before returning to Paris at the age of thirteen. Denis’s filmography, from her debut feature film Chocolat (1988) up through White Material (2009), has thus been marked by a sustained interrogation of the modalities of inclusion and exclusion as these intersect with race and nationality. Indeed, scholars such as Cornelia Ruhe and Isabelle Le Corff have noted the diptych-like nature of these two films in particular and analyzed the ways in which they probe racial and familial tensions within colonial and postcolonial settings. Such analyses, while illuminating, often pay relatively scant attention to the aesthetic particularities of either film, privileging instead comparisons between the two. Whereas older, single-film analyses have, in fact, analyzed in great detail the aesthetics of Chocolat, many aesthetic aspects of White Material remain unexplored or under-analyzed, thereby limiting our understanding of the (post)colonial in Denis’s films.
In what follows, I aim to undertake a sustained analysis of the imagistic and cultural dynamics of identity, intimacy, and belonging in White Material by focusing not only on Maria Vial, as most critics tend to do, but also on her son Manuel, the film’s critically neglected secondary protagonist. With White Material, Denis continues a career-long dialogue with the work of Frantz Fanon, inflecting, in this film, his examination of the psychic afterlife of colonialism above all for black subjects toward an examination of the same for white subjects. Such a perspective is not uncontroversial and, as Isabelle Favre writes, runs the risk of being wrongfully understood as a “‘défense de l’oppresseur’” (defense of the oppressor); it is perhaps for this reason that Marianne film critic Danièle Heymann called the film “politically incorrect.” Already in his earliest work, however, Fanon sought to understand the means by which black and white subjects alike are conditioned to occupy neurotic, racialized roles. In her staging of interracial dynamics in a distinctly postcolonial Africa, Denis examines the predicament of white Europeans who identify with their African home but continue to be perceived as foreign colonizers. As such, they remain doggedly “other” in the eyes of native black subjects, integrable into black society only insofar as they are reducible in turn – as in the film’s title – to a form of that disposable, economic materiality to which the colonial situation had reduced and the postcolonial situation continues to reduce black subjects. Although not oppressed in any meaningful way and although for different reasons (whether out of a desire to ignore the colonial past or out of shame over it), these postcolonial white subjects nevertheless experience in their search for affective belonging some of the same psychological dramas as the alienated black subject in Fanon’s account: the physical overdetermination of identity, the desire for invisibility, and even the desire to transracialize.
Given the spectacular rejection of the Vial family by the film’s end, it is tempting to understand the dislocation of the Vial family as total and merited, the film as a fable of unequivocally doomed interracial relations in the postcolonial era in which “[t]here is no beyond to the Other.” In such a world, as Fanon writes, black and white subjects find themselves “en plein drame narcissiste, enfermé chacun dans sa particularité” (in a narcissistic drama, each trapped in their own particularity). However, Denis and her Franco-Senegalese cowriter Marie NDiaye seem interested not simply in depicting the rejection of white Europeans in postcolonial Africa but rather in exploring the affective borderland that results when white Europeans’ sense of or desire for belonging comes up against rejection. In the film, this tension is emblematically formulated by the local mayor Chérif in a remark to Maria about the predicament of her son Manuel: “C’est pourtant son pays, il est né ici, mais le pays ne l'aime pas” (It’s his country after all, he was born here, but the country doesn’t like him).
The film’s exploration of such dynamic psychical processes as identity formation and belonging points to the need not only for an analytical approach which heeds moments of union and disunion alike (something which critics have not always done) but also for a psychoanalytically informed approach capable of examining desire, the unconscious, the repressed and its return, and dreams. Without this, several of the film’s key sequences cannot be adequately understood. In examining the ambiguous belonging of the film’s white protagonists, I distinguish between two kinds exemplified largely in turn, albeit with some overlap, by the film’s mother-son duo: geographic belonging (Maria) and social belonging (Manuel). More importantly, I come to the conclusion that interracial belonging obtains only uneasily and in contexts of violence traceable to the subterranean, historical-affective workings of the colonial legacy. Whereas Maria’s sense of union with the land of her unnamed African home rests on a repressed economic violence visited upon black Africans, her son Manuel’s precarious sense of social belonging to black Africa hinges on a more actively assumed violence directed both inward and outward.
Ultimately, White Material complicates the question of the possibility of interracial belonging in postcolonial Africa by staging a series of imperfect unions marked by violence and by postponing indefinitely the full realization of interracial unity. In doing so, it suggests that the unspoken legacy of colonialism continues to produce forms of interracial alienation resolvable into forms of intimacy only in violent encounter. It thus confirms Fanon’s ultimate insight that the originary violence of the colonial period stands in the way of the idealistic “saine rencontre” (healthy encounter) hoped for between black and white subjects and suggests that the absence of a decisive reckoning with the colonial past continues to haunt interracial dynamics in contemporary Africa.
Maria Vial: The Price of Loving the Land
Maria Vial’s sense of union with her home stems above all from an intense connection with the land. Critics who discuss the film, struck as they are by Maria’s apparent self-delusion, her rejection by many of the black African characters, and her family’s ultimate destruction, tend to foreclose prematurely the possibility of a genuine connection between Maria and her home. “Insisting on her belonging and right to the land,” Henrik Gustafsson writes, “Marie [sic] refuses to perceive her own foreignness.” James S. Williams conditions belonging on racial fusion, writing, “The only European woman in the film, [Maria] displays a naive, misguided wish to forget that she is white in order to fuse with the native blacks while castigating all French as nouveaux riches.” An attentive viewing of the film, however, suggests something other than Maria’s complete exclusion from the land of her home on account of her race. The audience’s introduction to Maria is revelatory in this instance. Elements of the initial sequence do indeed underline Maria’s exclusion and separation from her home: the car that she attempts to hail does not stop, the bus driver tells her she cannot board, and a government soldier brands her as a corruptive agent within the country for having paid the toll illegally imposed by the rebel forces. To stop here, however, would be to miss the other half of the picture; elements of exclusion are counterbalanced by elements of inclusion. Although the bus driver tells her she cannot board, a passenger traveling on the roof invites her to climb aboard the exterior of the bus. Although labeled a corruptive agent, she is subsequently admitted to the bus’s interior and is granted a seat among the black commuters.
Maria’s attainment of a stable seat within the bus provides the symbolic grounds on which a further development of the theme of belonging can take place in a flashback. The first hint of the centrality of the concepts of union and rootedness to this sequence is disclosed prior to the flashback, as a POV shot showing a distant mountain is followed by a shot of Maria gazing pensively out the window. The landscape chosen for this shot is significant given the questions of separation and belonging which the sequence has already evoked and given Maria’s impending regression, in the ensuing flashback, to an earlier, ecstatic state of union with the earth. Indeed, the vision of the teat-shaped mountain, on which Maria seems to gaze unblinkingly, occasions the memory of a union with the maternal body of the earth which serves, significantly, as the film’s fullest initial characterization of Maria (Figure 1). In this flashback sequence, Maria rides a motorbike across a deserted dirt road, smiles, tilts her face skyward, and raises both hands energetically to the sky in apparent praise and self-abandonment. Maria’s faith in her connection to the African land is so great that – eyes closed and hands raised – she relinquishes control of her motorbike and places her trust in the earth beneath her. The film’s casting and framing in this scene seem to confirm Maria in her sense of union with her home: close-up shots of the back of Isabelle Huppert’s head allow her red hair to blend in with the reddish earth in the background, with one moment of particular note in which Maria undoes her ponytail, her hair unleashed into greater contact with the environment and blown horizontally by the wind into visual union with the landscape speeding by (Figures 2, 3). This visual union, representative of Maria’s affective union with the African land, is echoed moments later when Maria, noticing a sandal in the road, stops her bike and dismounts. A downward tilt shot of Maria’s body is followed by an upward tilt shot of the same, prompting the viewer to read Maria as a vertical form in this scene and stressing the tonal unity of her boots, pants, shirt, hair, and skin. A horizontal pan follows Maria over to the adjacent wooded area, where, surrounded by other tonally similar, vertical forms – the trees in the background –, she immobilizes herself to become like them, figuratively rooting herself in the African soil (Figure 4).
Denis’s play with color here has not gone unnoticed, but, when it is noticed, it tends to be analyzed without consideration of the ambiguities inherent in this scene and without reference to other, complicating instances of Maria’s color-melding. Isabelle Le Corff writes, “In the motorbike scene, [Maria’s] hair, her clothes absolutely match the surroundings, and even her hands have turned a brownish color.” Maria does indeed fit into the landscape, but the modalities of this belonging are complex. It is significant here that Maria gains a sense of union with Africa only while alone. Her tonal union with the land in the flashback scene stands in sharp contrast to her tonal difference in the shots framing the flashback of her sitting among the bus’s black commuters; the identical angle, size, and framing of two successive shots of Maria in particular linking flashback and present (Figures 5, 6) emphasize the disparity between Maria’s sense of belonging when alone and her social dislocation, suggesting, perhaps, a Fanonian desire for invisibility. Indeed, on the auditory level, the rebel DJ’s promise of herbs that will render one “invisible et invulnérable” (invisible and invulnerable), issuing forth from a portable radio at the same moment as the cut between these two shots, evokes precisely this desire.
Moreover, the (visual) union that Maria attains both on the motorbike and in the woods should be understood as marked by violence. In the former, the kinetic, shaky camerawork causes Maria’s image to never be stably registered, signaling this union as violently unstable. In the latter, Maria blends in not just with the reddish-brown dirt and living trees but also with dead trees whose scraggly, amputated forms connote a union tinged with death. Such a deathly union with the landscape is visually confirmed in a shortly ensuing scene in which Maria, searching the plantation for workers who have not yet fled, stumbles upon a burned-out field of trees. An initial shot first shows Maria walking through and then pausing next to the still vertical remnants of an amputated tree, its trunk ominously the same height as Maria and of similar coloration (Figure 7). Two shots later, a horizontal camera pan connecting the ashy earth to Maria’s boots and gray pants transitions into an upward tilt shot which reveals the tonal unity both between Maria’s shirt and the ashy ground as well as between her hair, her skin, and the dead tree limbs (Figure 8). Such a technically parallel camera movement to that used to depict Maria’s initial union with the reddish earth suggests the ambiguity of this union – one of both life and death – and portends the fate awaiting the film’s white characters: decapitation (the hacked-down trees) and carbonization (the ashes). It also discloses visually that part of violence underlying Maria’s sense of blissful belonging to the African earth.
The violence inherent in Maria’s union with the land, which these shots underscore visually, stems from the ambiguous role which she plays in this postcolonial African country. Her professional identity lies somewhere between coffee farmer and plantation owner and thus hesitates between a cultivator of the land, on the one hand, and a colonial exploiter of workers and of the land, on the other. Historically, of course, largescale commercial coffee cultivation in Africa originated in the colonial period and served as a means of procuring wealth for a select group of plantation owners. As Cornelia Ruhe reminds us:
It is no accident that Maria, her husband and her father-in-law are coffee farmers, with coffee being one of the main products of colonial exploitation. [...] As a “cash crop,” it was introduced to many regions of Africa [...] but its cultivation was restricted to a lucky few: “It was the aim of the colonial administration that coffee cultivation should be left in the hands of a small ‘elite,’ made up for the most part of European settlers, African chiefs, and notables.”
The film does suggest that Maria’s coffee growing operation at the Vial plantation exploits black Africans for financial purposes in line with the colonial activities Ruhe describes here, but it also tempers this portrait of Maria by indicating that the plantation provides her not so much with financial profitability – her husband André tells Chérif that the plantation is worthless – as with an existential purpose, one intensified by the presence of a civil war. She reveals as much in her conversation with the Boxeur, who asks her why she has not left the country and to whom she responds: “Je suis dure au combat, moi aussi. Comment je pourrais montrer du courage en France? Ça serait ridicule, ça ressemblerait à rien” (I’m a fighter, too. How could I show courage in France? It’d be ridiculous, there’s no way).
The cause of Maria’s maniacal attachment to the plantation – whether existential and/or economic – does not ultimately matter in light of the consequences of this attachment for others, notably for the black workers necessary to the plantation’s operations. Indeed, much as Maria might wish to be the ahistorical manager of a coffee plantation, contemporary history exposes the concealed but still operative violence of colonial history, as the pressures of the civil war materialize and dramatize the (economic) violence inherent in this relationship between white (post)colonizer and black (post)colonized. This violence materializes explosively in one of the film’s final sequences involving Maria, when the newly recruited workers discover the danger that she has exposed them to through her harboring of the Boxeur and demand to be taken home. Importantly, this violence, although not strictly committed by her, is traceable in symbolic and psychoanalytic terms to Maria herself.
As Maria drives the group of men away from the plantation with a shotgun to her head, a band of rebel child soldiers runs out into the road and holds up the truck. This scene parallels an earlier scene in which a different group of rebel soldiers instituted a toll and in which, significantly, Maria recognized the young men beneath their outer role as soldiers: “Mais je te connais, t’es le professeur de gymnastique de mon fils. [...] Je vous connais tous, hein... Toi, t’es Peter Nembo. Toi, t’es François-Joseph. Toi, t’es Samir – ton père, il me vend du grain” (But I know you, you’re my son’s gym teacher. [...] I know all of you, you know... you’re Peter Nembo. You’re François-Joseph. You’re Samir – your father sells me seeds.). In this later scene, too, Maria recognizes something beneath the surface, as a series of stupefied POV shots make clear, namely, her former belongings – earrings, necklace, and dress – now being worn by two young rebel girls, both of whom, armed, confront Maria (Figures 9, 10, 11, 12).
This incorporation of parts of Maria into these foreign bodies and their hazy recognition recalls the logic of the uncanny, which, as Freud notes, operates exemplarily through synecdoche: “Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist [...], feet which dance by themselves [...] – all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition.” In her recognition of these synecdochic extensions of herself, Maria recognizes uncannily animate versions (i.e., doubles) of herself. As Nicholas Royle writes, Freud explicitly links such experiences of the double not just to the uncanny, but – interestingly for this scene – to issues of life and death:
On the one hand, [the double] seems to illustrate or promise immortality: you can be repeated, replicated, duplicated. The life of an individual is no longer precariously confined to a single body. On the other hand, it is the very disordering of identity. The individual is no longer individual. There is a dividing of the one, division within the self. Seeing your double you are obliged to suppose that your own identity is dissolving or has already come to an end.
As Royle suggests in his final sentence, the experience of a double is uncanny because the double gives one the impression that one has been succeeded by another self, that one is obsolete, and that the other lives on in the face of one’s own apparent death. Maria, in this instance, finds herself confronted with two doubles who quite literally, with gun and machete, threaten to replace her. Her union with African society is, in this sense, shown to be possible only through the violence of her own death.
It is possible to understand this scene in another manner, however, given Freud’s linking of the uncanny to repression; he writes, “[...] for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” That which occasions the uncanny in this scene – jewelry and clothing, which is to say material belongings – is indeed something whose significance Maria tries to repress, namely, the colonial legacy and the exploitative materialism underpinning her affective union with Africa. The violent integration of only her material belongings suggests that, in keeping with the economic violence of her relationship with black Africa, her own integration into African society can encompass only the material and not the human. The return of this repressed content is marked, moreover, by a violent, symbolic drama, as the double wearing Maria’s necklace shoots and kills a worker who attempts to give voice to the workers’ precarious situation: “Tu peux pas faire ça, [...] on est pauvre, on n’a pas d’argent!” (You can’t do this, [...] we’re poor, we have no money!). An avatar of certain repressed material within Maria, this girl and her killing of the poor worker express that hidden violence in Maria’s relationship with black Africa which Maria habitually ignores. This key scene thus doubly reveals the violence underlying the possibility of Maria’s union with Africa, both through the threat of her violent replacement in death and through the return of the repressed violence prerequisite to her union with the African land.
Manuel Vial: The Dream of Social Belonging
Denis’s film underscores the ambiguity of white Europeans’ union with Africa and the violence inherent in its realization through the representation of a parallel drama for her son Manuel. Despite the fact that he is arguably the film’s secondary protagonist, many critics neglect him to focus their discussion on Maria instead. Others give him short shrift by characterizing him as “[o]bviously out of his mind,” thereby reducing his behavior to mere insanity. Manuel must rather be understood, as the film somewhat explicitly suggests, as in crisis about his racial identity. The white son of Europeans in Africa, he seems equally loath to attend high school (where he would occupy a marginalized place similar, perhaps, to that of the sole albino child of José’s class) and to harvest coffee with the plantation workers, preferring instead to sleep in and laze around his room. His mother repudiates him for his sloth and gives voice to the crisis of identity and belonging which hangs over him: “Je sais pas ce qui s’est passé avec toi. Je sais pas, parfois j’ai l’impression que t’es pas mon fils” (I don’t know what’s happened to you. I don’t know, sometimes I feel like you’re not my son.). Reproached for what Maria calls his “avachissement” (sluggishness), Manuel responds by asserting himself dramatically over the course of the film in an effort to resolve his crisis of identity by achieving violent union with his African home.
Certain critics have understood Manuel’s behavior as related to a conflict of belonging. Florence Jacobwitz, in her review of the film, notes that “Manuel is attracted to [the child soldiers], in part, one suspects, because he too, on an emotional level, is a child who wants to belong.” Seizing on the film’s persistent thematization of color, Cornelia Ruhe briefly but brilliantly likens the darkening of coffee beans during the roasting process to Manuel’s crisis of racial identity, concluding, “What may work for the crop does not, however, for the skin tone of a human being. [...] His corpse [at the film’s end], burned beyond recognition, is now, in a cynical comment on the issue of race, undeniably black, a state that was inaccessible to him in life.” Perhaps the fullest treatment of Manuel comes from Veronica Jordan-Sardi, who analyzes Manuel’s evolution as a search for “agency and acceptance in his self-dehumanization” as he shifts away from humanity and towards an animality represented by the film’s “yellow dogs.” Manuel’s crisis of identity does cause him to revert back to childhood, does encourage him to seek violent union with black subjects, and does involve self-debasement. What has been neglected, however, is not only a sustained analysis of Manuel’s evolution – including of the key sequence of his encounters with the two child soldiers – but also the fact that Manuel’s desire for union and its violent realization almost always occur in the context of dreamlike sequences. This is an important fact in light of Freud’s claim that “a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish” and suggests the need for a psychoanalytically informed approach.
Before examining Manuel in greater detail, it is important first to consider briefly what becomes for Manuel the object of desired union, namely, the rebel child soldiers. Despite their association with unpredictable violence, as in their random killing of the poor worker mentioned above or of the town pharmacists, the rebel child soldiers benefit from positive associations within the film; indeed, Denis even dedicates the film to the “intrépides petites marmailles” (daring little rascals) and to her co-writer Marie NDiaye. The film’s fullest initial presentation of the rebel youth is revelatory in this instance. Following an extreme wide shot of a serene mountain landscape, a wide shot of a forested area slowly discloses moving forms in the background which blend in among the trunks of trees and advance to the peaceful, dreamlike sound of a non-diegetic flute (Figure 13). Such an initial presentation positively connotes the child soldiers as organic forms native to the land of the unnamed country and establishes the symbolic set of oneiric resonances which accompany the child soldiers during their encounters with Manuel; in this way, they represent as early as their introduction the dream of organic belonging desired by Manuel.
Prior to his first encounter with the rebel child soldiers, Manuel is sleeping in his room in the middle of the day; his mother Maria wakes him and, as we have previously seen, upbraids him for his sluggishness. When he finally leaves his bed, his transition to waking reality remains tinged with the fragmented logic and haziness of dreams: a medium close-up shot of his head from behind yields to a medium shot of his inverted, undulating reflection in the water of the pool (Figure 14), which then yields to a shot of an inverted reflection of Manuel’s legs into which Manuel then jumps. Such a disorienting succession of fragmentary shots followed by an inverted plunge into one’s own reflection in a liquid element suggests a descent into the unconscious as well as a regression to the intrauterine space of the womb, as if Manuel, directly following his mother’s assertion that she sometimes cannot believe that he is her son, were seeking to re-filiate along another line of descendance more in accordance with his unconscious desires. Indeed, it is as Manuel floats in the pool Ophelia-like, eyes closed (Figure 15), that the children emerge from the brush and threaten to spear him, only to be banished by a shout from Manuel’s (super-egoic) father, at which point Manuel shakes himself awake, as if from a dream. It seems to me that we can speak here already of a dream logic according to which Manuel’s repressed but desired violent union with Africa is given a temporary, transfigured substance but is ultimately destroyed and dismissed by the intervention of a representative of the super-ego.
A sequence in many ways parallel to this one occurs three minutes later, however, suggesting that the desire for union is tenacious. The dream cycle restarts to the oneiric notes of a non-diegetic xylophone as Manuel, back in bed, sleeps (Figure 16). At the same time, the same two children explore the house silently, leave dark footprints in the white bathtub, and make physical contact with various instances of “white material,” whether figurines or Maria’s butterfly necklace. Such actions represent a kind of intercultural mixing, curiosity, and desire which will be reciprocated in Manuel’s ensuing actions. Manuel, startled awake by the incongruous screeching of a chicken, stumbles outside into a kind of waking dream and makes his way barefoot through the forest. A shot of the children running away is followed by one of a smiling, playful Manuel in pursuit, connoting Manuel as a man-child delayed in his development, a delay emphasized by the casting of a late twenty-some Nicolas Duvauchelle for a high schooler (Figure 17). As Manuel, having regressed to childhood, pursues the two, the film seems to suggest visually that, given the choice, Manuel would recast himself as black, evincing that desire for transracialization that Fanon attributes to the alienated black subject in white society. An ascending vertical pan of Manuel lingers first on his muddied feet (Figure 18) before cutting to a shot of his muddied foot punctured and bleeding (Figure 19); undeterred, Manuel limps on. Such an event is not plot-functional and invites speculation as to the reasons for its inclusion. Given the film’s play with color, these images seem to suggest that Manuel’s desire for union with black Africa (the darkening of his feet) will inevitably involve violence and pain (the bloody cut), a fact confirmed by the remainder of this sequence, by his ensuing attempts at union, and by the fate he meets at the film’s end.
In the culmination of this sequence, Manuel arrives at the top of the hill where the two boys await him, armed. The non-violent purpose of Manuel’s pursuit becomes clear here: aware of the threat of danger, Manuel nevertheless follows the boys unarmed and injured and seeks not so much revenge for the belongings they have stolen as something like the opposite of revenge: surrender. When the two confront him, he submits to them willingly (Figure 20). Strikingly, the scene refuses to result in the death of Manuel and instead engages in a prolonged hesitation between intimacy and violence. The younger boy, for instance, chops off a lock of Manuel’s hair only to smell it, while the older boy gently runs his hand across Manuel’s upper back before calling him the insult “yellow dog,” grabbing him by the neck, and ripping off his gold chain. The ambiguity of this contact, between intimacy and violence, is further emphasized by a shot of the older boy running his spear down the small of Manuel’s back before the latter’s boxers are shown, two shots later, to have been elliptically removed, suggesting the possibility of sodomy.
The encounter, however, results in only a partial merging: the two boys attach Manuel’s boxers to their spear and fire their gun in a sign of victory before fleeing. In a downward tilt shot, Manuel is shown left contemplating his only partially muddied palms (Figure 21), of which the camera takes especial note, and his partially muddied feet. The contrasting white and black skin tones, previously juxtaposed in the physical contact of the older child soldier and Manuel, find themselves mixed here on the same body, albeit only partially, suggesting Manuel’s incomplete transformation into that black bodily form which he desires. As in the earlier pseudo-dream scene by the pool, it is the father who breaks the spell of the dream of union and reintegrates Manuel into established reality, this time through the lending of his pants to cover up Manuel’s nudity. The urgency with which André removes his pants so that Manuel might cover up his exposed penis suggests that we can read the previous encounter as one in which Manuel openly desired his own symbolic castration and that we can read his father’s present act as a reinvesting of Manuel with the (symbolic) phallus (of his own community). Such a reading aligns with Danielle Knafo’s remarks on the desire for castration, namely that, “In a broad sense, fantasies about castration and penis envy are considered to be concerned with the restrictions set by one’s body. They are about the envy of what other bodies have and the wish to transcend one’s physical limitations. Such fantasies are [...] about the gap between what one is and what one would like to be.”
Whether or not one accepts such a psychoanalytic reading, it is difficult not to read this sequence as the site of a primal renegotiation of identity. Even beyond its culminating encounter, this sequence insistently evokes questions of separation, union, and ownership. Following Manuel’s discovery by his father, Maria and the plantation workers, inspecting a fence (a structure of separation), discover a hole in the fence (a structure of union) which allows for the passage between two formerly distinct zones. Moreover, Maria’s rationalization of the footprints discovered near the hole – “C’est des pas d’enfants, non? Ça devait être des petits bergers qui ont – je sais pas, qui ont voulu récupérer un mouton à travers le grillage” (Aren’t these kids’ footprints? There must have been young shepherds who – I don’t know, who wanted to bring back a sheep through the fence) – is at once ludicrously naive and poetically true. It takes only an ounce of imagination, for instance, to understand Manuel as a lost sheep seeking his home and the spear-wielding African boy as a shepherd with a staff. Following this, as Maria fights for the possession of her son against André and as Manuel climbs up into the tractor, André’s half-black son José – an otherwise inconspicuous figure throughout this scene and a potential figure of that mixed state of being desired by Manuel – enters the frame and shares a silent, significative shot reverse shot visual exchange with Manuel. Despite this, Manuel’s reintegration into the white world of his family in the wake of his symbolic attempt at transracialization is all but assured as his biological mother, Maria, hauls him back to the plantation by tractor, declaring, “Je cèderai pas. T’es mon fils, je peux pas te laisser partir au fil de l’eau. Tu sais bien que je te lâcherai jamais” (I won’t give up. You’re my son, I can’t let you go adrift. You know I’ll never let you go.). Her assertion of control over his identity earns her a blank gaze from Manuel and causes him to flee in order to pursue rebelliously his desire for social belonging.
When Manuel is seen again, he is prowling around his family’s home and stops to gaze in a window, where a POV shot shows his half-brother José and a black worker named Élisabeth with their backs turned to him in a symbolic continuation of his incomplete merging with black Africa (Figure 22). Clearly enraged, Manuel shaves off his blonde hair – “purg[ing] himself of one of the most apparent physical traits separating him from the other youth” – and, changing tack, turns against Élisabeth, attempting to force a violent, perverse union of white and black by stuffing locks of his hair down her throat, which she spits back up (Figure 23). Both surrendering to the other, as in the preceding sequence with the two boys, and forcing oneself upon the other, as here, thus result in only partial or failed mergings of identities.
Despite his aggression toward Élisabeth, itself the apparent expression of frustration over the preceding, attempted renegotiation of his identity, Manuel’s violence does not ultimately constitute a radical rejection of black Africans and an embrace of the kind of white supremacy that his shaved head would seem to portend. Indeed, his next appearance in the film shows him on a motorbike trying desperately to catch up to the rebel children who have commandeered Maria’s truck and shouting to them the location of their leader, holed-up at the Vial plantation. In the ensuing scene, Manuel achieves what becomes his greatest sense of union with the African children by joyfully looting his family’s storehouse of its contents, symbolically establishing his willingness to sacrifice his own family’s belongings for the benefit of his new family. As with Manuel’s earlier encounters with the African children by the pool and in the open field, this scene takes on dreamlike resonances, although in a distinctly tragic sense, as the group takes to ingesting the medications stolen from the local pharmacy and falls into the sleep of intoxication. This encounter, too, is undergirded by a violence – here a self-violence – and results in only a partial union, as stupefaction stands in for community. The camerawork emphasizes this separation amidst togetherness; as the black children are shown together in a tracking shot in close, intimate proximity, a cut occurs before a pair of successive shots shows Manuel, framed in isolation, ingesting a few final pills, lying down among the grass, and staring emptily at the camera, ready to enter a sleeping state both communal and solitary (Figures 24, 25). Narratively, this partial union has fatal consequences, as the resulting deep sleep enables the gruesome murder of the child soldiers at the hands of the government forces. With Manuel’s own death following in short order, his body burned black, as Ruhe notes, Denis’s film seems to foreclose on the possibility of total union between white and black Africans in this life and postpones its realization, perhaps, to the community of the dead.
White Material should thus be seen as a film which, like many of Claire Denis’s films, circles questions of sameness and otherness, of identity and belonging. Focusing on the intimacy of its white protagonists with the place they make their home, the film does pronounce, as critics have noted, a bleak verdict as to the viability of the Fanonian “saine rencontre” (healthy encounter) between black and white subjects in postcolonial Africa. It does more, however, than simply declare the impossibility of interracial intimacy by staging a range of unions – both geographic and social – of varying degrees of success between its white and black characters and between its white characters and the African land. Importantly, these partial unions reveal themselves to be conditional upon violence, whether to others or to the self, as the violent, unspoken legacy of colonialism continues to produce forms of interracial alienation resolvable into forms of intimacy only in those violent encounters theorized as inevitable by Fanon. Maria’s connection to the African land, predicated as it is upon the subjection of black Africans to an economic relationship whose underlying violence is materialized by the pressures of the civil war, engenders a social alienation able to be rectified only through an intimately violent confrontation with her own doubles. As for Manuel, he reveals himself to be more clearsighted than his mother: faced with his own social alienation, he seems to realize the violence necessary in order to bridge the affective gap wrought by the colonial legacy. He enacts this violence in various guises, as he in turn consents to his own symbolic castration, forces himself upon the black other, and sacrifices his own family. Finally, in a moment of frenzy at the film’s end, Maria seems to learn her son’s lesson that something in her family’s relationship with Africa is rotten and needs to be torn out at its source. In decapitating her father-in-law, whose ailing, phantom-like presence throughout the film connotes a lingering illness, Maria visits intimate violence upon the originator of the Vial family’s presence in Africa. Juxtaposed as it is with the final escape of the young rebel leader and the precarious possibility of rebirth which he incarnates, Maria’s purgative violence against the specter of colonialism raises but does not answer the question of whether such ancestral annihilation can, in any sense, redeem her family’s relationship with Africa and open out onto forms of greater interracial intimacy.
Marcus Dominick is a PhD candidate in French & Francophone Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He researches 20th- and 21st-century French and Francophone literature and film, with particular interests in life-writing, intermediality, and literary hybridity.
4. See ibid., and Cornelia Ruhe, “Beyond Post-Colonialism? From Chocolat to White Material,” in The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border, ed. Marjorie Vecchio (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 111-123.
7. Andrew Hussey, “Claire Denis: ‘For me, film-making is a journey into the impossible,’” The Observer, July 3, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jul/04/claire-denis-white-material-interview.
10. James S. Williams, “Beyond the Other: Grafting Relations in the Films of Claire Denis,” in The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border, ed. Marjorie Vecchio (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 103.
14. Henrik Gustafsson, “Points of Flight, Lines of Fracture: Claire Denis’s Uncanny Landscape,” in The Films of Claire Denis: Intimacy on the Border, ed. Marjorie Vecchio (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 212.
17. Fanon, Peau noire, 113. Fanon writes that physical overdetermination causes the alienated black subject to desire invisibility among white subjects: “[...] que l’on ne m’aperçoive plus!” ([...] let me no longer be perceived!”).
31. Veronica Jordan-Sardi, “Colonial Subjectivity: An Evolving Legacy in Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de... (1965), Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), and Claire Denis’ White Material (2009)” (MA Thesis, University of Iowa, 2012), 64.
40. Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2002), 40-44. For Fanon, the violence of the colonial period indelibly marks the relationship between (formerly) colonized and (former) colonizers and calls forth further violence.