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A young French woman returns to the vast silence of West Africa to contemplate her childhood days in a colonial outpost in Cameroon. Her strongest memories are of the family's houseboy, Protee - a man of great nobility, intelligence and beauty - and the intricate nature of relationships in a racist society. Written by
Dawn M. Barclift
Set in the Cameroons in West Africa in the 1950s, Claire Denis' Chocolat is a beautifully photographed and emotionally resonant tone poem that depicts the effects of a dying colonialism on a young family during the last years of French rule. The theme is similar to the recent Nowhere in Africa, though the films are vastly different in scope and emphasis. The film is told from the perspective of an adult returning to her childhood home in a foreign country. France Dalens (Mireille Perrier), a young woman traveling through Cameroon, recalls her childhood when her father (Francois Cluzet) was a government official in the French Cameroons and she had a loving friendship with the brooding manservant, Protée (Isaach de Bankolé). The heart of the film, however, revolves around France's mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi) and her love/hate relationship with Protée that is seething with unspoken sexual tension.
The household is divided into public and private spaces. The white families rooms are private and off limits to all except Protée who works in the house while the servants are forced to eat and shower outdoors, exposing their naked bronze bodies to the white family's gazes. It becomes clear when her husband Marc (François Cluzet) goes away on business that Aimée and Protée are sexually attracted to each other but the rules of society prevent it from being openly acknowledged. In one telling sequence, she invites him into her bedroom to help her put on her dress and the two stare at each other's image in the mirror with a defiant longing in their eyes, knowing that any interaction is taboo.
The young France (Cecile Ducasse) also forms a bond with the manservant, feeding him from her plate while he shows her how to eat crushed ants and carries her on his shoulders in walks beneath the nocturnal sky. In spite of their bond, the true nature of their master-servant relationship is apparent when France commands Protée to interrupt his conversation with a teacher and immediately take her home, and when Protée stands beside her at the dinner table, waiting for her next command. When a plane loses its propeller and is forced to land in the nearby mountains, the crew and passengers must move into the compound until a replacement part can be located. Each visitor shows their disdain for the Africans, one, a wealthy owner of a coffee plantation brings leftover food from the kitchen to his black mistress hiding in his room. Another, Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), an arrogant white Frenchman, upsets the racial balance when he uses the outside shower, eats with the servants, and taunts Aimée about her attraction to Protée leading her to a final emotional confrontation with the manservant.
Chocolat is loosely autobiographical, adapted from the childhood memories of the director, and is slowly paced and as mysterious as the brooding isolation of the land on which it is filmed. Denis makes her point about the effects of colonialism without preaching or romanticizing the characters. There are no victims or oppressors, no simplistic good guys. Protée is a servant but he is also a protector as when he stands guard over the bed where Aimée and her daughter sleep to protect them from a rampaging hyena. It is a sad fact that Protée is treated as a boy and not as a man, but Bankolé imbues his character with such dignity and stature that it lessens the pain. Because of its pace, Western audiences may have to work hard to fully appreciate the film and Denis does not, in Roger Ebert's phrase, "coach our emotions". The truth of Chocolat lies in the gestures and glances that touch the silent longing of our heart.
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