Writing for this publication about Claire Denis’s 1999 breakthrough movie, Beau Travail, her hypnotic reworking of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, J. Hoberman praised the director as “a sensational filmmaker — with all that implies.” Few auteurs of the past 30 years have been able to match Denis’s gifts at distilling mood and atmosphere; her narratives, at once immediate and oblique, are conveyed via an inexhaustible arsenal of ineradicable sights and sounds. What’s most remarkable about Chocolat (1988), Denis’s first feature, which the Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting in a new 35mm print for a week-long run beginning September 18, is the degree to which her superb command of the sensuous is already apparent.
Before Chocolat, Denis had worked for more than two decades as an assistant director, notably on Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986). Her inaugural feature — which she co-scripted with Jean-Pol Fargeau, who has been her frequent writing partner ever since — is her most transparently autobiographical: Told primarily in flashback, Chocolat takes place in the late 1950s in Cameroon, where Denis (born in Paris in 1946) spent part of her youth as the daughter of a Gallic civil servant stationed in African nations that were then under French rule. (Cameroon, like most African countries that were part of France’s colonial empire, gained independence in 1960.) Informed by potent childhood memories, Chocolat introduces one of Denis’s abiding themes, the legacy of French colonialism, a topic also central to Beau Travail and White Material (2009) — and one that she refuses to address as a simple dichotomy of good versus evil.
Denis quickly immerses us in her voluptuous, allusive mode of storytelling: Chocolat opens with a still of the ocean, a static image that soon becomes a moving one. Two figures, a black man and his son, slowly approach the shore; a languid pan to the right reveals a young-looking white woman, the only other person on the beach, lost in the pleasures of her Walkman. Paralleling her silent, solitary delight is the look of rapture on the face of the boy as he lies still in the sand next to his dad, waves washing over them. The isolation in which these characters appear to exist is soon broken: Walking on the side of the road, the woman, named France (Mireille Perrier) — the moniker is the film’s sole instance of an overdetermined signifier — is offered a lift by her fellow seagoers. “Are you a tourist?” asks the father, Mungo (Emmet Judson Williamson), later revealed to be an American expatriate, as he ferries his passenger to Douala, Cameroon’s largest city. “Sort of,” France responds, an equivocal answer that transports us back 30 or so years earlier.
Roughly ten-year-old France (Cécile Ducasse) is the adored only child of Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), a district officer in Mindif, in northern Cameroon, and Aimée Dalens (Giulia Boschi), who is often exasperated by her large staff of black servants, especially during her husband’s frequent absences. The most prominent of these domestics — and France’s closest friend and conspirator — is Protée (the great Isaach de Bankolé, in his first of three collaborations with Denis), referred to, in English, as the family’s “boy.” Silent for long stretches of the film, Protée exhibits a range of moods (his name, after all, is the French equivalent of Proteus), from steely rage to bottomless despair. A man confined, quite literally, to the periphery, he is also this intricate movie’s most crucial character.
The title of Denis’s movie, as she explained in interviews during Chocolat‘s initial release, is Fifties slang meaning “to be had, to be cheated,” and specifically “to be black and to be cheated.” Without question, the film explicitly depicts the insidious, diminishing behavior and attitudes of the colonizers. One Frenchman, stranded temporarily chez Dalens, fans a wad of bills at a native Cameroonian friend of the family’s, demanding to be driven to a faraway destination and then snorting incredulously to his hosts when this gentleman ignores him, “They run things around here?”
But, as she has throughout her career, Denis shifts seamlessly from macro to micro: Within colonialism’s systemic oppression and exploitation, she explores the complex interpersonal relationships that developed between foreign rulers and indigenous subjects, including those that flourished, if only fleetingly, and those burdened by inexpressible desire. France and Protée are so close that she can always solve the gnomic riddles he poses to her; so deeply does she trust him that she doesn’t hesitate to eat a piece of buttered bread that he has sprinkled with ants. Yet this affection is always on the verge of being poisoned by an incongruous balance of power, as when tiny France, her hair arranged in perfect plaits and sitting astride an equally wee donkey, imperiously barks at Protée, “We have to go now!” in front of a large crowd of Cameroonian schoolchildren, who then taunt him with the same words. Filled with irresolvable feelings for her servant, Aimée wields her authority over him more treacherously.
As a buffer against these and other humiliations, large and small, Protée comports himself with an aloof, impassive nobility, a mien that functions as a carapace. For all its hardness, though, the shell breaks easily. Of Chocolat‘s many indelible images, none guts me more than the look of anguish on Protée’s face when this proud man, soaping himself up in the outdoor shower for the “boys,” hears France and her mother return. The reasons for his sudden grief are both puzzling and all too evident.
Directed by Claire Denis
The Film Desk
Opens September 18, Film Society of Lincoln Center