Chocolat (1988)

Dir. by Claire Denis

Claire Denis’s debut film, Chocolat, opens with a two-minute static shot of a man and child, both black, playing in shallow ocean waters. When the camera does finally move, it pans nearly 180 degrees to the right before coming to rest on a young white woman. I thought little of the shot the first time I saw the film, but watching Chocolat again last night, I was struck by the economy of that single, simple camera movement. By dividing the frame in perfect halves, the shot’s composition introduces what will become one of the film’s central metaphors, the horizon line; by recontextualizing an idyllic image of a father and son (presumably) through what amounts to a cutless eyeline match, the pan firmly establishes the film’s tricky but essential subjective perspective.

The young woman, we eventually learn, is traveling through Cameroon, visiting the lands where she was raised as the daughter of a French colonial district officer. France (Mireille Perrier) carries with her her father’s leatherbound diary of notes and sketches, and she fingers its pages as if the diary were family album, romance novel, and roadmap, all in one. Ten minutes into Chocolat, we leave the present to enter her reverie of the past, and all but the final few minutes of the film are a recreation of her childhood landscape. Specifically, France remembers a time when her father set out on a short trip, leaving her and her mother (Giulia Boschi) behind under the care of their houseboy, Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). Like an Edith Wharton novel, Chocolat appropriates the conventions of a romance plot to comment on restrictive social structures, specifically the complexities of a colonial system that simultaneously dehumanizes and hypersexualizes the colonized, while also degrading the colonizer. It’s brilliantly executed—a story told completely in small but significant gestures.

Reviewers who have deemed “unnecessary” the framing device involving the adult France have completely misread Chocolat, I think. While there is much to recommend in the film—Agnes Godard’s cinematography, the many fine performances, and Denis’s typically seductive pacing, to name just a few—Denis’s handling of the film’s subjective perspective is what differentiates this film from other earnest and well-intentioned examinations of racism and/or colonialism. (There is probably room here for a discussion of the differences between Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, and Anthony Minghella’s also-good but differently-focused film adaptation, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Take, for example, the most significant of Chocolat‘s many small gestures: the moment when the mother reaches slowly from her position on the floor to touch Protée’s calf. It’s a perfectly staged sequence, more charged and transgressive than anything imagined in a typical Hollywood sex scene. And Protée’s reaction retains its mystery and shock even on a second viewing. But who is “remembering” this moment? Although Denis’s camera shoots from the vantage point of the young France, three feet or so from the floor, France is not in the room. She could not have witnessed this event, and so we are left to answer any number of questions: Who is telling this story? From what evidence is she reconstructing her narrative? How does something so subjective as memory (not to mention love, faith, and power) distort our understanding of history, both personal and political.

Near the end of Chocolat, France is told by her father, “The closer you get to [the horizon], the farther it moves. You see the line, but it doesn’t exist.” It’s one of those movie lines that screams significance. But recognizing the metaphor as metaphor and unpacking it are very different tasks, and I’m finding the latter a pleasant and surprising challenge. The most banal reading might be something like, “the line that separates the races is culturally-determined and, therefore, surmountable.” There’s nothing in the film to suggest such a rose-colored reading, however, and, really, the film would be dishonest crap if there were. Or, the father’s line might be exploded into some universal platitude about the hopeless quest for understanding. “No matter how hard we search, Truth always remains just out of reach.” But Chocolat is too grounded in specific historical conditions to be reduced to a platitude.

The horizon metaphor begins to find its shape, I think, in juxtaposition with another scene: the moment when the mother reprimands her cook, who speaks in badly broken English. “Enoch, I don’t understand any of what you’re saying,” she tells him. (I can’t comment on the original release of the film, but the DVD wisely leaves the African languages untranslated.) I have always wished that someone would film Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, but Chocolat has made any effort to do so redundant, for at their core both are about the colonizer’s desire to understand the colonized, a desire that is human and noble, on one hand, but too disfigured by power and history to be anything more than patronizing. This is how Gordimer describes the terrifying moment when her heroine, Maureen Smales, recognizes that she is caught in such a trap with her servant, July:

How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing that was to say between them that had any meaning.
Fifteen Years
your boy
you satisfy

But—and this is important—unlike the end of July’s People, which is a story of revolution, Chocolat does offer some portent of hope. The film ends, once again, in the present day. France has hitched a ride from the black man whom she first spotted swimming in the ocean, and whom she soon discovers is actually an American immigrant. This revelation once again recontextualizes Chocolat‘s opening image, calling into question the validity of France’s perspective. (Had she imagined herself witnessing some timeless ritual of real black African life? Did this fantasy put her in closer communion with her mother? With an imagined version of her mother?) Denis, who also spent much of her childhood in colonial Africa, clearly sympathizes with France’s plight. Her desire to understand, to write narratives that discover the human in inhumane circumstances, is noble, is essential, even if fraught with ambiguities and unavoidable landmines.

The final image in Chocolat is another long static shot, the frame divided in half once again by the horizon. Three black men smoke and laugh as an unexpected burst of rain passes through. France is gone, but somehow we have retained her (its) perspective. Denis leaves the camera running for several minutes, inviting us to understand these men, or, at least, fostering in us the desire to do so.