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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
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.
By way of a woman's remembrance we are asked to reflect upon themes -
of age, colonialism, race, religion, the power of the elements - that are
often presented in a heavy-handed and awkward manner.
This film is very understated and thoughtful. There is no one single message or moral here; these are complex themes and so there is often ambiguity.
I liked this film very much. I know this will seem trite, but, not many American Directors make small films like this - ones that deal with complex themes in a gentle and intelligent manner.
A lovely comedy-drama that seems like a gorgeous, sunlit, Orientalist-like tourism into an unfathomable Africa, and an elaborate, irrelevant exercise in Merchant-Ivory-style historical reconstruction, but is actually a quietly disturbing examination of the effects of colonialism. Being French, the focus is one the microcosmic - it's not vast historical truths that are enacted, but the inability of a beautiful white woman to act on sexual stirrings for her black servant. The film's surface elegance conceals remarkable disruptions in point of view and a storytelling style so elliptical you might even miss the point if you're not careful. CHOCOLAT is also a wonderful coming-of-age film that refuses the easy moral progress typical of the genre. The lengthy coda could have been shorter, though.
I think this movie would be more enjoyable if everyone thought of it as a picture of colonial Africa in the 50's and 60's rather than as a story. Because there is no real story here. Just one vignette on top of another like little points of light that don't mean much until you have enough to paint a picture. The first time I saw Chocolat I didn't really "get it" until having thought about it for a few days. Then I realized there were lots of things to "get", including the end of colonialism which was but around the corner, just no plot. Anyway, it's one of my all-time favorite movies. The scene at the airport with the brief shower and beautiful music was sheer poetry. If you like "exciting" movies, don't watch this--you'll be bored to tears. But, for some of you..., you can thank me later for recommending it to you.
Unfortunately, because of US viewers' tendency to shun subtitles, this movie has not received the distribution nor attention it merits. Its subtle themes of belonging, identity, racial relations and especially how colonialism harms all parties, transcend the obvious dramatic tensions, the nostalgic memories of the protaganiste's childhood, and the exoticism of her relationship with her parents' "houseboy," perhaps the only "real" human she knows. We won't even look at her mother's relationship with this elegant man. There! i hope i've given you enough of a hook to take it in, whether you speak French or like subtitles or not. I challenge you to be as brave, strong and aware as La P'tite.
My 3rd-year French classes always enjoyed this film very much. In a
multi-cultural, inner-city high school, the film provided many subjects for
discussion (in French in class, but I know a lot of discussion went on in
English after class). The most obvious is the relationship between Protée
and Aimée compared to the one between Protée and France.
I always mentioned that I felt this film had one of the "sexiest" scenes I had ever seen in a movie. One year, a 17-year-old African-American shouted, "Yes!" when he figured out the scene: the one where Protée is helping Aimée lace up her evening dress, all the while both are examining the reflection of the other in the mirror. Directors use the "mirror technique" when then want to focus on the inner conflict on the part of one or more character in a scene: this is a perfect example of the technique, and it is "sexy".
Most students had trouble understanding the end of the film. One suggested that one theme of the movie was "Africanism", and that no matter how much one loved Africa or Africans, one cannot "become" African (like the driver tried to do): one must BE African.
I loved this film because in my mind it seemed to so perfectly capture what I imagined life in French colonial Africa must have been like in the 50's ("my" generation anyway). But I was truly enraptured by its quiet pacing and by the glorious ending. Within the last 5 minutes of this film, you must focus intently on what's happening. Never have I been more impressed with the "wrap-up" of a film. I remember yelling "wow!" when I realized it was over. On the other hand, my two daughters fell asleep on the couch!!
In reflecting on this movie I can think of two others to help put it in
perspective. One relatively forgettable but covering the same geography, is
Coup de Torchon, the other thousands of miles away and much larger in scope
is the unforgettable Indochine. Claire Denis has produced a movie that has
some of the grand underpinnings of Indochine, the complex and unspoken
relationship between France and her colonial subjects.
I was struck with the dignity of Potee, with his struggle to maintain his dignity among his peers and with his white bosses. I was also struck with the love/hate relationship between him and Aimee. It is the latter that gives the film its driving force, it is the latter that links this movie to Indochine.
One never is sure what motivates everyone, though some of the characters are required of a remembrance of colonialism. It is this cynical side of the story that ties it to Coup de Torchon. Theirs is the more scandalous story, perhaps even more interesting in a depraved way, but Denis gives us a remembrance of how it was with all the tension and unresolved relationships.
The American black who gives the grown up France a ride in the beginning and end of the movie offers yet another interesting side to the confusion that we in the Western world have when we look at Africa. He says that when he came he wanted to call everyone brother. He was coming home, but they just thought him to be a little daft. France, the character and the girl, grew up in Cameroon, but neither fully understands what it is even though they can remember how it was.
Elusive, introspective memories of a childhood in colonial Africa are recalled through the eyes of a self-possessed young girl with the telltale name France. In her calm, observant demeanor she is, herself, almost African, and likewise the film is beautiful and aloof in a way that speaks volumes with a minimum of words. Nothing is ever made explicit, least of all the suppressed attraction between France's young mother, left in charge of a remote homestead while her husband is away on business, and the handsome native houseboy who suffers his servitude with a proud but uneasy forbearance. Writer director Claire Denis shows a strong affinity for the landscapes and people of her adopted continent, maintaining a beguiling ambiguity about who exactly has the upper hand: the French masters or the passive, patient native servants.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an amazing film to watch or show young people. Aside from a
very brief nude scene, it gives an interesting glimpse into colonial
rule in Africa that you'll rarely find in other films. It does bear a
superficial similarity to OUT OF Africa, but without all the romantic
fluff. The White French people in Cameroon are fascinating because they
don't even seem to regard the natives as people. The Whites are all the
bosses and they expect Black servitude without question. However,
unlike real servants, you only once hear any of the Whites say 'thank
you' and no other regard is given these people. Again and again, it's
like they are pets or slaves, as the feelings of the people are never
The central illustration of this thoughtlessness is the relationship between the mother, Aimée and her servant, Protée. Although at times they spend a lot of time together and it is only normal that they might begin to have sexual feelings towards each other, the White woman never considers Protée or the existence of his feelings. A good example of this thoughtlessness is when she has Protée lace up her dress and it's obvious that he is very sexually frustrated by this. Apart from this relationship, while almost all the Whites are completely oblivious to the fact that the Africans are people, a few go so far as to verbally abuse and treat them like garbage.
Also interesting is the relationship between Protée and the little girl (who is the one who is grown at the beginning and end of the film). While they are very close, at times he's more like a plaything or pet and the girl never plays with native children.
There is one bizarre White character who seems, at times, to regard the Blacks better but unfortunately his character is very inconsistent and confusing. One moment, he's doing hard work along side the Blacks or eating with them (something the other Whites would never have done) and the next he's trying to beat up Protée! I could only guess as to what motivated him--perhaps he was just a jerk, or was crazy or perhaps was a Communist agitator trying to stir up the Blacks against the Whites (who knows!). In fact, other than a few good scenes, this character seems pretty much wasted.
While I really enjoyed the insight this movie gave, I wish it had instead been more than just a few snippets of this world through the perspective of a child during one small period of her life. The context and what happened to rid the country of colonialism is never addressed and the film left me wanting more. The film appeared to begin in the early 1980s (since she's wearing a Walkman-style headset) and when the film went back in time, it seems that it was set about 1960 (more or less), but there was never any mention of the 1950s anti-colonialism violence or independence for the nation in the early 1960s. I am guessing that some of this confusion might be that the makers of the film screwed up and SHOULD have made the beginning of the film earlier (such as the 1970s) and had the lady think back to her life there in the early 1950s--before the country experienced political change.
Apart from the missing context and a confusion over time periods, using the prologue and epilogue that showed her as an adult traveling the country was a good idea. And I also appreciated the ending, as it was a pleasant surprise when you find out more about the nice man who offers her a ride. But overall, it just feels like something is missing--there just isn't any sort of resolution or message other than showing that colonialism is thoughtless and cruel.
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