White Material opens with a scene that, we'll eventually learn, comes at the very end of the story. The second scene takes place much earlier, not all the way at the beginning, but comfortably before the middle. Nothing about the transition between these scenes implies in any way that they aren't related in the usual way - honestly, nothing implies that they're related at all- and for pretty much all of the next hour and three-quarters, that's how things are going to be: scenes come and go with little concern for how they fit into the story, and the film never makes specific mention of that fact. If the viewer is going to get any sort of sense of what goes on and what it means, he or she will have to be prepared to do a lot of work; White Material is a not a film that tells, but a film that has to be engaged with fully, thought about and re-watched and re-considered and even after all that every viewer is going to end up with a private reading that is probably different from the next person's.

No doubt about it, we're right in the middle of Claire Denis Country. Though not all of her films are equally inscrutable (ranging from the perfectly straightforward Friday Night to the ludicrously, beautifully opaque The Intruder, the best of her films I've seen), none of them are easy. Denis makes tone poems, basically, movies in which the emotions one feels are not entirely contingent upon understanding where those emotions are coming from; in this respect White Material is merely typical. There's a whole lot that's obvious about it, really: its crawling sense of dread, erupting in one of the most apocalyptic finales in any recent movie; the unforgiving indictment of European privilege in the face of grueling African poverty; how classically tragic it all is, in depicting a strong woman whose strength is the very reason that she ends up suffering so greatly at the end.

Without getting too deep into plot specifics, White Material is primarily about Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a French immigrant living an unnamed central African country (it was shot in Cameroon), where she manages a struggling coffee plantation with her husband André (Christopher Lambert, as "Christophe"), their son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauche), and André's father Henri (Michael Subor), the owner of the plantation. A civil war is raging not very far from the Vial homestead, and the rebels, holding the greater measure of power as the story begins, don't look too kindly upon the interloping Europeans in their midst, threateningly dismissing them as "white material" - the phrase, like the film's title, is in English. One of the rebel leaders is a figure known as The Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé), who will end up running into Maria in a most unexpected way, and it's arguably this relationship, teased out of several discontinuous segments, that forms the beating heart of White Material.

Denis, who spent much of her childhood in Africa, does not have terribly romantic ideas about a stubborn Frenchwoman refusing to leave her beloved African plantation in the face of immediate danger: the script which she wrote with Marie NDiaye (a French novelist of Senegalese descent) offers Maria no mercy for the litany of foolish choices she made. At one point, hearing of Maria's attempt to buy her way out of trouble, a local official turns on her with more disgust than he seems to feel even for the rebels, and while it comes early enough in the movie to surprise and even upset us a little bit, he makes a fair enough point, if rudely. Maria's unexplored sense of post-colonial privilege drives every moment of the film's plot; when she angrily dismisses all those other whites for ruining Africa (in exactly the same language that, unbeknown to her, she has been dismissed, or will be, or whathaveyou), she is hypocritically and unthinkingly describing herself.

Though, for as much as the film is a definite political tract, and it would be idiotic to deny the potency of racial representations in the film (Huppert has rarely looked so conspicuously pale as she does her, thanks to a series of outfits that wash out her already delicate face), there's more to it than just that. It's equally a character study, with Huppert giving a stupendous performance, easily her best since The Piano Teacher in 2001, playing a woman whose refusal to deal with the world around her - to believe, in essence, that her own willpower can stave off the encroaching rebel forces - borders on clinical insanity. At one point, Maria admits that she never wants to return to France; it's not the right place with a woman of her courage. Implicitly, she's acknowledging that the danger and violence of this civil war is appealing precisely because it allows her to prove that she's better than everyone else: in that moment, she reveals herself as a deranged, violent person, though the moment is played with enough quietude, Huppert refusing to allow it as anything but a simple matter-of-fact declaration of intent, that the full impact of it isn't clear. When, at the very end, Maria finally erupts, it's a startling moment but not a very shocking one: we've been primed for this all along, and the fact that the film concludes with the last breakdown of whatever hypocritical illusion of civility has been holding the Vial plantation together seems inevitable more than anything else.

A grim, nasty film it sounds like; and a grim, nasty film it is, like Herzog with all the joy deliberately sucked out. But Denis's inclinations as a filmmaker do not permit her to make something so completely grinding as all that, though she feints in the direction of realism by working with cinematographer Yves Cape on giving the movie that grainy, handheld "documentary" style that European filmmakers like to use to demonstrate how very serious they are. Realism is a dodge, though, for Denis's intentions are more lyrical, and the moments that linger the most from the film are those where that realistic camerawork is bent in service of the poetic and irrational. Few moments I've seen in any movie released in America in 2010 are going to haunt me longer than a lengthy shot of rebel soldiers drifting through trees and down a hill like ghosts; and the power of the concluding moments (of both the chronological narrative and the movie) comes in no small part from the way in which Denis and Cape stage them as if they were making a horror movie all along. Meanwhile, the score by the English band Tindersticks plays discordantly underneath all, unsettling the film even as it adds immeasurably to its sense of doom.

If there's a major flaw in White Material, beyond the somewhat pedantic political moral, it's that the joylessness is so complete that the film itself becomes a bit suffocating. Denis has never been one to clown around, but there are moments here and there - the sublime "Nightshift" scene in 35 Shots of Rum is a recent example - where she allows enough light to sneak in that for a moment, the audience can regroup and briefly feel alive to the director's glistening command of the medium. There is not a trace of that here: the film drives on and on, and its most cinematically exhilarating moments are also, generally, its most merciless. I suppose I am basically saying that the movie is too powerful for me, which is assuredly my problem and not Denis's; it is of course the whole point of her story to leave the audience feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and it succeeds wildly at that goal. It is, though nobody's idea of a good time, one of the most essential films of the year.