Everyone I have spoken too since the release of 35 Rhums has said what a fine piece of filmmaking it is and for me it is the best film I’ve seen this year. It has made me more determined to see the rest of Claire Denis’ work.
I remember when Chocolat was released, but not why I didn’t see it at the time. I was surprised to see on IMDB that it made over $2 million at the box office in North America. But then I think there was a vogue around that time for films set in Africa (Out of Africa was a big hit in 1985). The responses suggest that people who did see Chocolat were often disappointed or confused. That doesn’t surprise me, but it is also good to see that there are several perceptive and fascinating reviews of the film (see below). Having watched the whole film now on DVD (having seen only extracts before) it strikes me that Claire Denis arrived as a filmmaker ‘fully formed’ with her first feature at age 40. Chocolat was quite clearly made by the same filmmaker who directed L’intrus and 35 Rhums. Of course, Denis was not a neophyte – she had served a long apprenticeship to directors such as Costa-Gavras and Wim Wenders (whose company helped produce Chocolat).
I can tell you about the content of the film since there is little in the way of plot or narrative in the conventional mainstream sense. As in the other films by Denis that I have seen, things happen, some of them surprising or shocking but they don’t occur in a classic cause-effect structure with a clear narrative resolution. Chocolat begins with a young, white woman on a remote tropical beach as she watches a black man and his small son splashing through the shallows. As she is walking away from the beach, the man drives up and offers her a lift. The main part of the film is then constructed as a single long flashback in which the woman, named ‘France’ remembers her childhood as the daughter of a French colonial official administering a remote region of Northern Cameroon. The little girl spends much of her time with the ‘houseboy’ Protée, a tall, strong and very beautiful young man in his twenties who is caught in a kind of no-man’s land between the house and the servant’s quarters, being neither fully ‘French’ or fully ‘African’. He is representative of the impact of colonialism and the crisis of identity. France’s father Marc is often away from the big house and an uneasy relationship exists between France’s mother Aimée (also young and beautiful) and Protée (and the other servants).
The ‘external incident’ that stirs up the household in the second half of the film is a forced landing by a French plane carrying a colonial official from another district and his new (French) wife, a planter and his female (African) servant. The plane needs a spare part in order to continue its journey and this will take several weeks to deliver. It is also necessary to prepare a runway for take-off and there is the problem that any runway will not be usable if the rains come, so there is a time pressure. The disruption also attracts another French couple and a team of African labourers amongst whom is Luc, a ‘rogue’ Frenchman who seems to be travelling across the territory and whose function in the narrative appears to be to challenge the sense of ‘order’ in the community. With all these new arrivals, there is bound to be conflict in the household. There is also a short coda in which the grown-up France has another brief exchange with the man from the beach.
If the above sounds like the plot of a colonial melodrama, it is and it isn’t. These are the elements of the colonial melodrama (which usually explores a charged emotional relationship across the taboo boundary line of coloniser/colonised) but here Denis uses the possibilities of combining the elements in a different way. The theme of the film is still sexual desire and the consequences of colonial power relationships, but not expressed through melodramatic excess. (I have commented on an extract from Chocolat used by Rona on our evening class in an earlier post.)
I’ve left out some of the narrative information from the outline above because if you do decide to see the film (Artificial Eye released the Region 2 DVD in 2005) you may want to keep some element of surprise. But I will refer to some of the background to the film. Claire Denis grew up in similar circumstances to little France, although I haven’t determined exactly where in French Africa her family was stationed in the 1950s. It may have been Cameroon or possibly Niger. The choice of Northern Cameroon for Chocolat is interesting for several reasons. Its remoteness helps the narrative in terms of isolation. It also allows Denis to make references to the ‘European’ rather than specifically French nature of colonialism in Africa. Cameroon was first colonised by the Germans and after 1918 was split into two mandated territories governed by France and Britain. The two separate colonies were reunited after independence. In Chocolat, France and Aimée are seen in a small cemetery where the German colonisers are buried. They have an English-speaking cook and they are visited by an Englishman who comes to dinner. I don’t think these are simply realist touches. Denis is not too concerned about ‘authenticity’ as such since the timescales are wrong – the older France looks to be in her late twenties in what appears to be contemporary Cameroon (i.e. the late 1980s), but the colonial narrative, in which France is seven or eight, must be at least 30 years earlier as independence in French Cameroon came in 1960.
The region used as a location is in the far North of the country, a wedge driven between Nigeria in the West and Chad in the East – land that is usually hot and dry with distinctive landscapes. It reminded me of films from Chad, but also from Mali and the rest of the Sahel further North (it’s actually not that far from the Northern tip of Cameroon to the Sahel region). I was reminded of incidents in Sembène Ousmane’s films such as in Aimée’s dismissal of a local Christian missionary in the predominantly Muslim local community and also of the visual similarities in some of Agnès Godard’s beautiful compositions, using the light against the compound walls, the long shots of the house and its inhabitants and the way characters disappeared into the dark of the surrounding night. It is the closest that I have seen a European filmmaker get to making an ‘African’ film. It is also a forerunner for the breathtaking imagery of Beau Travail (1999) located on the other side of Africa, but with similar landscapes. Landscape is an important element in the film, not least when France is told about what the horizon means by her father.
I’m not going to undertake a detailed reading of the film here, since there are already several very good reviews listed below. What I will say is that Claire Denis has become a kind of critics’ darling – both those critics who write in the specialist film magazines (she is one of the ‘visionary filmmakers’ in Sight and Sound, September 2009) and in the academy where she is a focus for both the application of contemporary theoretical writing to a body of work (such as the ideas of Gilles Deleuze) and also as a key figure in film studies within French language and cultural studies. This is great, but it would be a shame if Denis was thought of as somehow ‘difficult’ or impenetrable as a filmmaker. As long as audiences can get past their own attachment to Hollywood conventions about storytelling, Denis’ films are quite accessible on several levels with engaging and interesting situations and characters. So in Chocolat it is possible to use the film to explore how individuals and their desires are caught within the systems of taboos and restrictions of colonialism and post-colonialism. They react as functioning human beings, not as characters in a fiction, in what is a very clear-sighted representation of the worlds we all inhabit. I can’t wait to review some of the other films and find the ones I’ve missed.
There are several reviews and articles about the film and about the work of Claire Denis in general. The following are worth a look (along with the other entries tagged Claire Denis on this site):
The usually reliable Roger Ebert provides a useful way into the film without the need for a strong theoretical background.
An essay on the early work of the director from the ‘Reverseshot’ website
Detailed review of Chocolat from KinoEye
KinoEye issue focusing on the work of Claire Denis
Senses of Cinema review by Diana Sandars
Translation of an interview with Denis from French magazine, Sofa, posted on Senses of Cinema
Interview by Darren Hughes posted on Senses of Cinema
Review of Martine Beugnet’s book on Claire Denis by John Orr on Senses of Cinema
In the course of compiling this list I came across the ultimate Claire Denis resource collection compiled by Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free. If you are serious about accessing all the critical work, this is undoubtedly where to go.