The Films of Claire Denis: Chocolat (1988)

The camera gives us, the audience,  a view of  the Atlantic Ocean. This scene is not particularly peaceful. The waters here don’t look beautiful. The ocean roils into muddy bubbles. An African-American father and son though play unconcerned in these not particularly calm waters. The camera then turns to a white woman named France, watching unconcerned as this happens. We don’t know it yet but we see the African country of Cameroon behind her. Not long after she walks down a stretch of highway. The father, William, picks her up and offers her a ride to the town of  Douala.

This scene opens Claire Denis’ 1988 debut film Chocolat. The scene acts as the film in miniature. The scene lays out the themes the rest of the film will spend exploring. Chocolat is a fully formed piece from a first time director. There’s a clarity of vision in what Denis, who previously worked as an assistant director on films such as Out 1, Down By Law, Paris, Texas, and Wings of Desire, wants to say and the images she wants to construct. In her first film, she based the narrative on her own childhood spent in colonial West Africa, specifically French Cameroon. In another director and screenwriter’s hand, Chocolat might be a film about yet another adventure of a white person braving a trip to exotic Africa. This person would fall in love with the land, and befriending the local people. Possibly they may get caught up in a civil conflict and learn a harsh lesson. For Denis though, this is not an adventure film. Chocolat instead focuses on the detrimental impact white Europeans had on the indigenous people of Africa.

While the opening and closing scenes with an older France take place in the present, the majority of Chocolat takes place in the past. Cameroon is still controlled by the French. The town of Mindif is governed by Marc Dalens. He lives there with his wife Aimée and their daughter, a younger France. When Mr. Dalens needs to leave, he puts both his wife and the house servant Protée, played by Issach de Bankolé, in charge. His duties frequently have him away.

The French are not the only Europeans in the area. We meet Norwegian missionaries trying to bring God to what they believe is a godless land. A British man stops by later in the film and treats the area like it’s simply another vacation spot. Then there’s the memory of the Germans. Denis’ camera frequently lingers on a graveyard of German colonists. Aimée and France frequently walk through it, even making a game of reading the names on the rotted grave markers. The house even bears the inscription “The last house on Earth”. While no longer in charge of the country, the graves are a reminder of the tenuous nature of colonialism. 

Bankolé’s Protée is a man who endures people who see him as an asset and not a human being. He does his job with proficiency and dedication. For him, the Dalens are just another in a long line of colonizers. Still he does what they ask of him. He protects his dignity and humanity where he can. As a servant, he is only allowed to shower outdoors despite there being a large bathhouse on the premises. At first he appears to enjoy the act, but Aimée and France pass by as he bathes. Soon he breaks down crying immediately. There’s only so many indignities he can suffer.

Claire Denis constantly frames the Dalens racism as never considering Protée or the indigenous people’s humanity. Marc sees Protée and the other indigenous people as noble savages. When picking up a doctor, she makes it clear that Dalens interrupts what must be a meeting of revolutionaries. He either can’t recognize or consider this possibility or he chooses to willfully ignore it. The younger France sees Protée as a plaything. Sometimes she orders him around as if he’s a pet, not a person.

Then there is tension between Protée and Aimée while Marc is out. When he puts clothes away in her drawer, she order Protée to not enter her room again. Aimée clearly fears that she may be attracted to her servant. Protée tries to work around it as best he can. It never occurs to her if he actually desires her back. Claire Denis makes it ambiguous if he is attracted to her as well. It’s entirely possible Protée doesn’t. We learn in an early scene he has a fiancée. Does Aimée ever consider that he has a personal life or desires outside of her home?

Claire Denis takes her time displaying overt racism. The racism here is not some evil that can be defeated. It is a fact of life. When a plane makes an unscheduled landing near the house, the passengers bring their own brand of racism with them. The wife of diplomat new to the area needs medical attention. However her husband refuses to see a local doctor because he’s black. It will be a miracle if they last long in their new home. 

Luc, a drifter who comes into the Dalens orbit after the crash, constantly antagonizes Protée. He mocks the house servant and his place by treating his indignities as luxuries. He bathed and sleeps outdoors. He talks with other servants like he’s one of them. We know he’s not though. His lifestyle is a choice he’s made. Protée’s life is one chosen for him. This is echoed in the bookends of the film when an older France tries to hitchhike or take a bus to see her old home. These aren’t sensible choices but they are choices she can make. The locals don’t have that luxury.

The film ends returning to the present. The older France looking positively nostalgic. It’s likely the gaps in her memory were filled by her parents experiences, not Protée’s. She has an idyllic view of her childhood where she hasn’t reckoned with her privilege like writer/director Claire Denis did. The camera doesn’t linger on her though. It instead focuses on airport workers. They load a plane with things purchased in Cameroon. They then go break not in a break room but outside where it soon starts raining. The rain doesn’t bother them, it’s simply something they have to endure.

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