Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Chocolat (1988)

CHOCOLAT               A           
France  Germany  Cameroon  (105 mi)  1988  d:  Claire Denis

When I was making Chocolat I think I had the desire to express a certain guilt I felt as a child raised in a colonial world […] knowing I was white, I tried to be honest in admitting that Chocolat is essentially a white view of the Other. 
—Claire Denis

When you look at the hills, beyond the houses and beyond the trees, where the earth touches the sky, that’s the horizon. The closer you get to that line, the father it moves. If you walk towards it, it moves away. It flees from you. I must also explain this to you. You see the line. You see it, but it doesn’t exist.              —Marc Dalens (François Cluzet)

The daughter of a civil servant, Denis spent much of her childhood in different colonial French West African countries in the 1950’s, living in what is now Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal, and Cameroon before returning to France where she assisted other directors such as Dušan Makavejev, Costa-Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch before directing her first feature at the age of 40, so like Toni Morrison in literature who never wrote a novel until her 40’s, she brings an unconventional maturity into her works.  She's one of the unsung filmmakers of our era, a director who moves between an experimental, avant-garde style with slight to nonexistent narratives to more conventional narratives fairly easily, usually focusing on the personal lives of marginalized characters usually absent from mainstream cinema (immigrants, exiles, alienated individuals, sexual transgressives), and while rarely calling attention to her impeccable craftsmanship, Denis has a highly individualistic aesthetic that favors poetic texture and visualized style over dialogue and action.  Often resorting to fractured time frames, she often blurs the lines between dreams and reality, the past and the present, where memory evokes painful references to history, which she uses to question the ingrained prejudices of the dominant white European culture and its supposed myth of civilization and progress.  The film is largely a memory piece that has an aching rawness to it as a young woman in her 20’s named France (Mireille Perrier) returns to the African region where she grew up during her childhood, a nation that has since gained its independence, but her reflections recall when it was under French colonialist control during her childhood in the 50’s.  A near hypnotic experience, the film stuns by its ability to express with such banality how easily it is to mistreat an entire nation of citizens, as people are seen as less than human, where the colonialist mentality sees Africans as incapable of being anything other than servile domestics, overly submissive servants that wait on the French hand and foot, mostly living in dire poverty themselves which the French ignore while living their own lives of luxury and ease.          

France (Cécile Ducasse) is a young white girl living in a remote colonial outpost in Cameroon, where the French flag is raised to the sound of trumpets each day, as she is raised separately from all the other black children in the village.  She is a child of wealth and privilege, where African servants dutifully obey her family’s every wish from the time they wake up in the morning until they’re safely asleep.  Her father, Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), is the regional administrator who is always away on important business adventures, where it’s his job to resolve petty tribal disputes while also keeping an eye open for the future, while her extraordinarily beautiful mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi) stays at home and lives a life of bourgeois refinement, usually arguing with the cook as the meals aren’t French enough, but always well looked after by the house servant, Protée (Isaach de Bankolé), a regular fixture in the home, always curteous, whose tall and muscular frame cuts a handsome and imposing figure, and while he’s a man of intelligence and great dignity, his soft-spoken manner and quiet reserve express a certain nobility.  Much of the director’s interest lies in what’s never spoken, in the silences that exist between characters, frequently leaving out explanatory information, leaving the viewer to superimpose their own thoughts about what the characters might be thinking.  Protée is usually France’s only friend, where she often runs off with him as he attends to errands, growing impatient if he overextends his stay, reminding him that her mother is expecting him.  And while the film is seen through France’s eyes, both as a young woman and as a child, it’s more about her recollections of Protée, whose continual acts of kindness are never reciprocated.  Perhaps the singlemost allure of the film is Abdullah Ibrahim’s fascinating musical score, offering a mix of sophisticated European jazz with a raw African flavor, almost always used during long tracking shots of the nearby landscape, beautifully shot by Robert Alazraki, with Agnès Godard as the actual camera operator, where the countryside itself becomes a silent character in the film.  It’s the exotic feeling of “otherness” that punctuates the music with sublime textures of faraway lands. 

A single event disrupts the mirage of harmony, when a plane is forced to land nearby, where they are forced to wait for weeks to get a needed part for repair.  During this interlude, the French passengers reveal their true colors, at first grateful for the lavish hospitality, but soon become bored and with nothing else to do turn on the African help with an onslaught of racist invectives that are meant to be demeaning and hurtfully cruel, where one in particular, a spoiled young ingrate named Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), intentionally tries to penetrate through the passive reserve of Protée, continually mocking him, hoping he will break character.  This kind of sick amusement only exposes the racist attitudes about Africans back home in France, but also unleashes unspoken sexual desires, as Protée’s solemn presence attracts the desire of Aimée, especially with her husband away so much of the time.  This contrast of demeaning humiliation with idealized sexuality expresses with equal measure the arrogance and pure ignorance of the colonial rulers, who have no respect or any knowledge whatsoever of the African people or culture.  Africans are routinely seen grooming one another in the afternoon sun, or we hear the sound of children at play, while the French hide indoors, seeking refuge in the shade, often hiding behind dark sunglasses, drinking themselves into a stupor.  Africans must bathe in the “Boys shower,” an open air outdoor facility in full view of the main house, where even their privacy is on full display.  Despite this nakedness, it’s ironic how little is known of the world of Africans, who are rarely seen and are given minimal dialogue, continually reinforcing the white perspective.  It is only in the relationship between Protée and young France that we see evidence of any developing complexity, a relationship that is abruptly challenged when Protée rejects Aimée’s advances and she has him quickly banished from the house, an act that has lifelong consequences for young France as well.  The film is a stark reminder of human contradictions, with so many thoughts left unspoken, every gesture ambiguous.  Ultimately the film explores the parameters between ourselves and the mysterious Other, where the camera intrudes across various boundaries of the body, the spirit, and the mind, but also borders and culture, often unwillingly asking us to look at what moral lines are being crossed.  The silence of Protée is symptomatic of Denis’s sensitivity, as we know little about his character, and can only guess his motivations.  Rather than offering an understanding of the Other, it remains an open question where we are left to determine its meaning and value for ourselves.    

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