Claire Denis: Chocolat (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Claire Denis: Chocolat (1988)

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France wanders the African land searching for questions to an answer she does not yet understand.  When offered a lift from a friendly motorist, her thoughts wander to her past and the affair that never was between her white mother and their black servant.  Claire Denis directs Chocolat from a screenplay written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau which stars Isaach De Bankolé, Giulia Boschi, Mireille Perrier, and Cécile Ducasse.

We just don't want to be noticed

"They saw no use in helping a race that was already
too charming and naïve and lovely for words.
Leave them unspoiled and just enjoy them, Michael and Anne felt."
Langston Hughes-

"I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids —
and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible,
understand, simply because people refuse to see me
-Ralph Ellison-

I've taken an unusual path through Claire Denis' career.  Starting with Beau Travail, after she already established herself as a great filmmaker, I jumped ahead to the critically beguiling Trouble Every Day and the arthouse greatness of White Material.  Though I've loved each of these films I've been struggling to find just what it is about her work that has captivated me so much.  Keeping this in mind I decided to travel back to the beginning of her career with Chocolat, and I believe I'm closer to the answer which have somewhat eluded me when watching her other films.

Chocolat shows Denis started her career with an absolute grasp of the way we empathize through film, which is how we reconstruct the memories and feelings we carry with us throughout our lives.  There are some interesting choices in the soundtrack to Chocolat which don't necessarily accentuate the film but give me a deeper understanding to how Denis approached her outsider status in colonial French Africa.  An early scene shows the elder France (Mireille Perrier) hitching a ride with a black man and his son.  Earlier she watches the two emerge unseen from the ocean, and a jaunty tune plays on the soundtrack as she rides with him.  The tune seems an odd fit, but she is enticed by the mystery of this other, and is trying to make sense of it in her own terms as expressed through the soundtrack.

Denis shows rare peace for the black men who are able to let their existence be without white intrusion.

Denis shows rare peace for the black men who are able to let their existence be without white intrusion.

What Denis does, and what reminded me of the above quotes from Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, is realize she will never completely understand the struggle of those she, through France as adult and then child, tries to empathize with.  There's a symmetry of sensation, or distance, in the different shots of Chocolat.  Young France (Cécile Ducasse), early in her relationship to her family's servant Protée (Isaach De Bankolé) is tenderly cared for and anointed with the blood of an animal during a roadside detour.  This tenderness is an attempt at connection, one which stuck with France, but one she realizes is not enough in a brilliant scene where France observed the now-banished Protée working on an engine.  She asks if it is hot, he invites her to touch the engine with him, she recoils instantly from the pain while Protée leaves his hands on the scalding engine long enough for a quiet hiss of searing flesh to enter the soundtrack.

As far as visual metaphors of our inability to completely understand how one feels for another it is about as perfect as I've seen.  Yes, France cannot withstand the pain Protée can, but she still watches and looks on him with concern.  Even at a young age France was able to realize at least some of the pain Protée felt on a now daily basis.  Which is why their relationship is the perfect counterpoint to the one Protée shares with France's mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi).  Where France sees a man she cannot but still tries to understand but never will, Aimée sees a tool of labor and potential pleasure.  Protée recognizes the lustful gaze of Aimée for what it is, and even though he quietly realizes he is just another means to an end for her, he desires her as well.

This is where the above quotes are especially important.  Denis shows time and again how the black countrymen wish to work and live in peace, free to live their flesh and blood lives which their white colonial masters are not prepared to allow.  This places Chocolat in a unique tension as the desire to be recognized as human is as important as the one to be left alone.  I've noticed how the black characters of other Denis films always seem to be in support, never in focus, and with Chocolat Denis creates the visual realization of this conflict.  Protée is wise to the ways of white folks, but wishes they would respect his desires as well, and that calls for trouble when he desires the white Aimée.

The shared desire and tension results in brilliant moments of silence and solitude.  Denis' camera stares at Aimée and Protée as she calls for him to help put on her dress.  They stare at a mirror, we stare from the viewpoint of the reflection, and the scene is no longer about what they feel separately but watching them examine what they would look like together.  We see him struggling to maintain composure in light of the earlier torment he displayed while taking a shower outside in the nude where Aimée could see him.  Denis never let's us see Aimée as exposed, sometimes taunting Protée as she caresses her husband and shoots Protée glances.

In a point of visual irony, young France's gaze is obscured by the netting, but she sees more clearly than Aimee.

In a point of visual irony, young France's gaze is obscured by the netting, but she sees more clearly than her mother.

Denis' restraint in presenting their relationship as any kind of formal courtship or star-crossed romance is refreshing and completely the point.  For each scene of Protée wallowing in his barely repressed desire, we observe the cautious games of Aimée.  Even when it seems their relationship is about to finally cross the threshold and become real Protée stops anything from happening.  There is no speech, but images of Protée banging against the wall before letting out a cry of pain, or restraining himself against a rude visitor who calls the sexual tension out for what it is but less from honesty and more to cause Protée more pain, and Denis does not cross their worlds together as they will never connect.

Which is why young France is so important.  In her eyes, the pain she remembers trying to touch the heat Protée deals with on a daily basis, she is a generation of hope.  Denis does not give us a big soliloquy from France, but from the black man who graciously gave her a ride.  He speaks, and she listens without intrusion or commentary.  Denis' observations about how the black countrymen under white French leaders were never provided space to be themselves.  In Chocolat Denis provides that space in the only way she knows how, and started her career off on a magnificent level.

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Tail - ChocolatChocolat (1988)

Directed by Claire Denis.
Screenplay written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau.
Starring Isaach De Bankolé, Giulia Boschi, Mireille Perrier, and Cécile Ducasse.

Posted by Andrew

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