Movie Review

Chocolat (1988) by Claire Denis

Original Name: Chocolat

Director: Claire Denis

Runtime: 105 minutes

Language: French

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“Horizon is a perceived line that vanishes as it is approached”

A sensitive, and complex look at the boundary between racial and colonial relationship in a French-colonial African country. Chocolat tells the story through the memory of now-adult France about her childhood place and the relationship between Protee (Issach Bankolé), a black houseboy with the young France and her mother Aimee (Giulia Boschi). Set in the end of the colonial era in an isolated place where time and space feel as though standing still, the film more than gives you the sense and feel of vast African’s landscape. Denis often uses long, panning shots to convey the boundless silent landscape of nothingness. Chocolat is Denis’s debut, and she credits both Jim Jarmusch on Down By Law (1986) and Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas (1984) (whom she worked as an assistant prior to making her own films) as the influence for the Chocolat’s style. One thing that really stand out in this debut is Denis’s trust for her visual telling. This is a film about all these tensions that can never speak into word, all the social line that cannot see but easily feel, and the colonial relationship that is fragile and vulnerable.

That invisible line of unbalanced connection is examined by the bond between Protee and young France and a sexual tension between him and Aimee. Protee has a powerful presence in his dignified manner and his weathered face. France’s father, Marc, is a captain in the French colonial army and is often away dealing with business and governing the area, leaving Protee to protect his wife and daughter. With France, they share a close relationship. We often see France play together with him and other African maids in their “common” place: either it’s the back of the house or under the car. In the opening, we see Protee offers her a bread with butter and black ants, which she happily eats it. Although as a white French, France is a hybrid between both Westernize culture and West African’s (in the case, Cameroon’s) own culture. But then again, they’re living on a different ground. At one point, she orders Protee to leave, which he hesitantly obeys. That all comes crashing down in the end where Protee purposely gives her a burning scar – a scar that best signifies the ongoing tension between the people in different side of colonial world.

The sexual tension between him and Aimee, likewise, takes a silent and subtle route. It comes gradually, from Aimee’s insecure about the place, to something simple like a bath. For Protee and all the maids, their shower is in public’s space. At one point, we see Aimee and France pass by it, reminding Protee’s own social space. Protee’s action of refusing Aimee’s advance can be seen as his refusal for class’s dominance. As the course of the film, we also see several other white characters and their relationship with the native African servants. One of them flat-out discriminate the native, but hiding his food for his African mistress. The other, Luc, also white boy but behaves like a black. He eats and sleeps together with the African servants. He berates Protee at his own identity before Protee throws him out of the house.

The film is bookended as the adult France visits back her hometown and meet an African-American man named Mungo Park (Emmet Judson Williamson). As we know more about his story, it becomes ambiguous what exactly is a bond of both France and Mungo and this African land. One is white who used to grow up in this land and the other is black but has been living overseas for a long time. Like the scar in her palm which indicates that she’s someone with no pass or future, so does this colonial bond and the search for identity of each character.

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