One could say that sound has always featured as an important element in the work of Claire Denis. Her 1999 Beau travail is a choreographed dance set to various pieces of music. However, it is not until Vendredi soir (2002) and 35 rhums (2008) that sound asserts itself as the most important element. Almost bereft of dialogue, the films rely on the compositions of the group Tindersticks (and various figures within it) to provide emotional cues. Denis’ most recent feature, White Material (2009), continues the director’s preoccupation with sound. Sparse in dialogue (save for explanatory purposes), the film also has a very spare musical soundtrack save for its theme, composed by long-time musical collaborator Stuart Staples from Tindersticks. Instead, the film relies heavily on diegetic sound to explore and imply moods and feelings, and most importantly to enhance the difficult and complex processes of the creation of the self (1).

In White Material Denis follows the personal journey of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a coffee plantation boss in an unnamed French-African colony during the last days of colonial rule. As the film unfolds, we witness Maria’s struggle to retain her belief that while the country may not be her true home, she is accepted there. By placing at the centre of the narrative a white woman who believes she belongs to the land, against a set of people who see her presence as oppressive and who want to brutalise her, yet who also carry out acts of violence against one another, Denis returns to the core themes of her earlier films (such as Chocolat, 1988) – the highly problematic issues inherent in the processes of colonisation and decolonisation (2). Denis’ exploration of the colonial narrative presents us with three particular “bodies” or subjectivities (or rather “subjectivities-in-between” as defined by Alison Butler (3) affected by the colonial process: Maria (the coloniser), the Boxer (the colonised played by Isaach De Bankolé) and Manuel, Maria’s son played by Nicolas Duvauchelle. Born in the colony, of French parents, Manuel is the ultimate body-in-between, belonging neither to France nor the place of his birth. Sound, for all three, is deployed differently to illustrate the complexities of identity creation.

The film’s soundtrack resounds with the noise of doors slamming, footsteps, the wind, insects, the cracking of the dry earth and grass, the engines of vehicles (bus, truck, and motorbike), the rolling of the coffee beans, the digging of the ground, children’s screams, and, most disturbingly, young throats being slashed by the army fighters and the crackling of the suffocating fire which ultimately kills Manuel. Many of these sounds belong to the land. It would be too simple to say that the calm blowing of the wind, or the buzzing of the insects, or even the rolling of the coffee beans project an idea of an idyllic land; the environment can be both sheltering and treacherous. Yet, these sounds emanate from the same source, they reverberate through the landscape and are received by bodies which appropriate them differently due to their own multiplicity and divergence of experience. Jean-Luc Nancy’s poetic description of truth not as “a naked figure emerging from the cistern but the resonance of that cistern or the echo of the naked figure in the open depths” (4), presents us with sounds that echo within the characters creating vibrations, which either soothe or aggravate them but none-the-less keep coming and going.

Within the diegetic soundscape of the film the radio figures as one of the most constant suppliers of sound. The radio not only provides the supplementary musical soundtrack in the form of reggae songs but is also a source of news and political incitement. During the film Maria is shown gently stroking the contours of that small sound box. With her fingertips she gracefully touches the radio; her gesture is delicate, as if afraid and hesitant to register the sound waves – and the meaning – emanating from the radio, which at that moment are full of loud and violent rhetoric. Maria’s reaction to the radio highlights her refusal to believe that something completely violent is taking place and also that she is not wanted. As a public mode of communication the radio is heard by all, and if Maria is afraid of its sounds then the young rebel army is incited by the rebel DJ who speaks of the Boxer’s victory. For them the anger discharged by the DJ’s voice and carried by the radio’s speakers is not a sign of danger but a call to action. The sound arms them with cause, reason, and courage and as such, they travel in a stolen truck raucous, loud and full of themselves.

Yet, as a purely audio medium the radio is a transmitter of the voice. It relies on the voice to produce emotions, which enhance meaning. The voice on the other hand is a sound that is not only registered by the body but also created by it. Talking is the most complex of bodily communication methods and relies on the use of highly structured and complex systems of language. Externally produced, language can be seen as a kind supplement to human development, a technology, which has become an integral part of the creation of the self. However, as an intricately constructed mode of communication with grammar and rules of syntax, language is also a powerful tool. The ability to use it and to command it exhibits one’s connection to the system that created it. In his seminal work, Black Skin, White Masks (1967), Frantz Fanon highlights such a point when he explicitly writes: “A man who has language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language”, and to possess this world is “to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (5). The meaning of these statements is clear. Yet this plays out quite differently in White Material where the three “in-between” bodies have knowledge and a command of the language but use it distinctly to assert their selves in the narrative.

Maria completely assumes her culture through her liberal use of the French language. However, a complication arises when we take into account that language is a tool of patriarchy where to be in control means to be male. Yet, Maria uses her voice, and does so strongly. She counters the assumed cultural position. Her rant against “those whites” is a moment when she attempts to establish her position outside of the unified body of the coloniser. Her conversations with her husband are imbued with a sense of anger and accusation; meanwhile her chat with the farm manger is soft and friendly. In his presence she allows herself to feel tired. She uses language and her vocal intonations to defend and then scold Manuel. She accuses him of not being a human being, of letting himself go, without giving him a chance to explain himself and use language to his own advantage. Thinking that by aggressively using language she will motivate Manuel, she only pushes him away.

The Boxer on the other hand refuses to speak. His silence is the refusal to hear himself speak in the language of the coloniser. While he does engage in dialogue, be it with Maria or the young rebel army – in particular their leader, Jeep (Ali Barkai), who speaks French with a heavy accent – those dialogues are sparse and grounded in the most elementary of topics. Like Protée in Chocolat, the Boxer is a strong presence in the film. His body is imposing, even when laid out due to his increasingly immobilising wound. His stare, strong and cautious, hides a violent history accredited to his local hero status. “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards”, writes Fanon (6). For the Boxer, to use French as a means of expressing himself is to describe himself in the language of the oppressor – a language that has very few positive adjectives in relation to the colonised – and so, he consciously attempts to escape such a trap. However, a complete refusal to engage on the linguistic level is impossible and so new means have to be established. Aside from his body language, the Boxer offers very little solution to this problem. Yet by refusing to hear the reverberations of the French language in his body, and by filtering the sounds from the outside (the sounds of nature, of gun shots, of the French language), he allows for a more conscious creation of the self.

As the ultimate body in-between, Manuel’s relationship to language is clearly complicated. Privy to it and aware of the benefits it offers, he uses it sparingly. Unlike his mother he understands that his presence in the country is unwelcome and refuses to establish himself as a clear presence. As the film starts we only hear of Manuel and even when we see him he is sleeping and covered by a blanket. Unlike his mother Manuel understands that he/they are unwanted. This knowledge Manuel gathers from experience, without any conversation and need for language. Within the narrative of the film there are very few instances of Manuel being engaged in conversation. He refuses to speak to his mother, only listens to his father, and screams at the help after his emotional breakdown. In the scene where Manuel follows the truck full of young rebels his screams are almost inaudible under the loud roaring of the engine and the angry ruckus caused by the kids. He doesn’t need proper language to communicate with them, and as such their communication is based on excessive gestures, looks, maniacal laughter. Manuel doesn’t use language as freely as his mother. Not because like the Boxer he refuses but because in the place he is in it offers him nothing. Manuel’s language use aligns him with the child soldiers who also don’t exercise full control of speech but rather yell their orders, supplementing them with body language. Both, Manuel and the young rebels are direct products of a system, which as Fanon points out has a very violent structure.

Rosanna Maule describes the work of Denis as a “troubled intersection of gender, class, ethnicity and cultural identity” (7). In White Material this intersection is indeed troubled. To highlight the complexities of such convergence, Denis relies on sound and bodily responses as influenced by the philosophy of Nancy to present us with the almost impossible to depict spaces of Butler’s “subjectivity in-between”, which, I would argue, define all of her characters. For, in Denis’ work, as in real life, no one’s self is ever fixed or stable.


  1. In his 2007 book Listening, Jean-Luc Nancy investigates the bodily possibilities of hearing/listening in the process of meaning making and thus, the creation of self. Arguing that reverberations and referrals always underscore the process of listening, Nancy presents the creation of self as a somewhat unstable process, one open to changes and exchanges where the self is constantly resounding. Infused with Fanon’s writings about the violent effects of colonisation, White Material also takes on the framework of Stuart Hall’s concerns for the varied affects of post-colonialism on the coloniser and the colonised. In such moments, tat Nancy’s ideas about sound become inescapable elements of identity creation. See Nancy, Listening, Fordham University Press, New York, 2007.
  2. By placing a woman at the centre of the film’s narrative, Denis also continues to explore her preoccupation with the (non)-presence of white women in the colonial narrative. As Rosanna Maule points out, Denis’ work expresses a kind of “colonial feminine”, which destabilises hegemonic ideas about nationality, sexuality and the family. See Maule, “The Dialectics of Transnational Identity and Female Desire in Four Films of Claire Denis”, Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film, ed. Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim, Wallflower Press, London, 2006, p. 74.
  3. See Maule.
  4. Nancy, p. 4.
  5. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markham, Grove Press, New York, 1967, p. 18.
  6. Fanon, p. 18.
  7. Maule, p. 73.

White Material (2009 France/Cameroon 106 mins)

Prod Co: Why Not Productions/Wild Bunch/ France 3 Cinéma Prod: Pascal Caucheteux Dir: Claire Denis Scr: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye Phot: Yves Cape Ed: Guy Lecorne Prod Des: Abiassi Saint-Père Mus: Stuart Staples

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam, Michel Subor, Isaach De Bankolé, Ali Barkai

About The Author

Marcin Wisniewski is a writer and curator inspired by national cinemas as well as issues of identity, beauty and the aesthetics of excess. He is currently organising an exhibition, Allegory, Folktales and Poetics: Soviet Cinema in the Works of Sergei Parajanov, with Fofa Gallery in Montreal, Canada.

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