Two great filmmakers, two great films: White Material and Police, Adjective

Film Festivals, FILM

Auteurs deliver at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

With each new film, Claire Denis confirms her place among the great cinematic artists of our time. Her films are simultaneously (and seemingly effortlessly) intimate and epic, in which small and large themes have equal weight, and where beauty and grace balance a clear-eyed recognition of the darkness within the human heart. Above all, Denis is a poet, even at her most narrative driven.

Where last year’s sublime 35 Shots of Rum referenced Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, White Material is a much less overt tip-of-the-hat in the direction of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. However, so as not to give the wrong impression, I must stress that parallels with Coppola’s magnum opus lie, for the most part, under the skin—in the soul of the film, in its themes, and only fleetingly on the surface. Set in an unspecified African country undergoing violent political upheaval, White Material focuses on Maria Vial (superbly played by Isabelle Huppert), a coffee plantation matriarch who refuses to abandon her land or business while everything around her descends into chaos. Where other filmmakers might be tempted to elicit audience identification with such a protagonist, particularly one in such a dangerous situation, Denis denies the viewer any certainty about this fiercely determined, at times near-delusional woman—and for good reason. This is a film about (among other things) the demise of colonial privilege, wherein metaphoric parallels with other equally untenable forms of imperialist advantage can be discerned. Christopher Lambert, Michel Subor, Nicolas Duvauchelle and Isaach de Bankolé deliver very fine understated performances as Maria’s ex-husband, his father, her cosseted son, and a wounded rebel leader respectively.

In some respects, White Material is a more direct and conventional film than we have come to expect from Denis. It has been criticised for lacking the lyrical and textural qualities of most of her other work, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the work of a filmmaker fully in command of her art. It is a fine example of strong and rigorous filmmaking, and there is much for cineastes to savour in this sophisticated, intelligent, extremely classy piece of work.

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As the title suggests, words play a pivotal role in Corneliu Porumboiu’s critically acclaimed Cannes winner, Police, Adjective. Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a young plain-clothes detective with growing doubts about the ethics of his current job—the painstaking surveillance (and expected prosecution) of a few dope-smoking teenagers. Cristi’s conscience places him squarely at odds with the overriding ethos of Romanian law enforcement, which holds a very different position when it comes to notions of moral responsibility.

Porumboiu, whose equally fine 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) screened at NZIFF 2006, takes a gently dialectical approach as he evenly considers the influential power of language from the mundane to the poetic (as is realised in an amusing and intellectually sharp scene where Cristi and his partner discuss the lyrics of a Euro-pop song), to the insidiously corrosive. The residue of Romania’s totalitarian past quietly crouches in the corners of this engagingly low-key film about oppressive bureaucratic authority. The use of ‘adjective’ in the title is particularly pertinent considering the film’s emphasis on procedure and practice in law enforcement, and the implicit theme of the subversive potential of independent thought. The absurdist quality of Porumboiu’s bone-dry wit balances the sober intent of the film, confirming him as one of the most significant talents of the Romanian New Wave. In a programme graced with more than a few potentially great films (by directors such as Jacques Rivette, Manoel de Oliveira, Abbas Kiarostami, Hong Sang-soo, Jia Zhang-ke, Claire Denis, Pedro Costa [finally!] and Vimukthi Jayasundara), Police, Adjective is sure to emerge as one of the festival highlights. Not to be missed.

‘White Material’, Dir. Claire Denis
France, 2009; 102 minutes
In French with English subtitles
Featuring: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankolé, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam, Adèle Ado, Michel Subor.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin.
‘Police, Adjective’, Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu
Romania, 2009; 113 minutes
In Romanian with English subtitles
Featuring: Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit
The Lumière Reader is proud to sponsor ‘White Material’ at the New Zealand International Film Festival this July and August.


  1. Bill, Raj, Kelly etc says

    Potentially great films?? Perhaps naievety is the reviewer’s greatest asset. For many cinephiles this is another sprawling festival without any really one great film that dominates. Ant Timpson is to be congratulated for getting his own way for a change. His selection over the past few years has been pathetic. Noe’s “Enter the Void,” could have been that one film that blow everyone’s mind, but the festival has decided that only Auckland sees it. This is enough to really really to piss us film students off. Last year we missed out on “Love Exposure” (ok it came back to the poor excuse of a film festival earlier in the year,), “Un Lac,” and the silent masterpiece of Fritz Lang “L’Espione.” This year we also miss out on Kore-Eda’s fantastic “Airdoll,” (have it already on DVD!), two wild Islamic punk documentaries, “TAQWACORE: THE BIRTH OF PUNK ISLAM,” and the Iranian, ” “None Knows about Persian cats.” Then the Festival is not known for showing films for young people. Perhaps the need for a change of new Programmers is well overdue.

  2. ‘Film students’ lamenting the absence of a Gasper Noe movie is laughable when you consider how auteur-driven this year’s line-up actually is (one of the most stacked in a long time), and how ignorant they must be of the numerous influential directors with new films at the festival this year.

    While there will always be exclusions from the NZIFF to bemoan, it’s simplistic to write them off as programming decisions. The unavailability of prints, or competing film festivals (i.e Melbourne), are just two examples among many as to why a film may not reach our shores. As for this ridiculous Auckland-envy: they are a bigger city, with bigger attendances, and more venues. Sheer economics. Maybe if corporate sponsorship wasn’t such a hard sell these days, other centers would be able to field larger programmes.

    Those without such a short memory will also remember that Aucklanders missed out on The White Ribbon last year. As for Enter the Void, it is also screening in Wellington, so I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.

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