Chocolat – Memories of Africa
Somewhere between Rudyard Kipling and Frantz Fanon, on the shelf dedicated to (de-/post-)colonial art, one can find Chocolat, the film which brought director Clair Denis international recognition in 1988. The entire story is set a few decades earlier, during the French colonial administration, and is told from the perspective of a girl who lives together with her white family – her father is a high-ranking diplomat, her mother is a housewife – in the desert of Cameroon. The director’s talent in working with enigmas makes the framing of the story, however thin, prove to be just as intriguing: indeed, we see a young girl named France who grows up in the meantime, returning to the country where she spent her childhood. On this plain of time, things last for just a few minutes, the time it takes for her to be picked up from the side of the road by an African-American who has come to search for his roots on the continent. An episodic, yet decisive character, who is initially stubborn in his determination to be part of the story (he drops her off at one point, then decides to drive her further), which switches into his stubbornness to disappear, brusquely cutting off any relationship that might have begun; the man is an unforgettable appearance. The way Denis models these moments, paying close attention to the bustle of the place, loudly coming in through the window of the car, while at the same time coordinating the waves of desire and fear flowing between two cosmopolitan strangers that are lost in Africa in the eighties, already recommends her gaze: there is no coincidence in the fact that, in the following years, she has turned into a beacon of global arthouse cinema.
It’s always exciting to retrospectively witness the birth of an auteur. Especially when the film in question is so adept at knowing how to avoid juvenile traps. With its dry, almost jerky tone, not at all willing to gaze admiringly at its own masterful effects, Chocolat brought Lucian Pintilie’s An Unforgettable Summer to my mind: the same solar belonging to a lost paradise, with the burnt sun of the summer enveloping the happiness of being a child in a sort of cocoon, but it’s a paradise that is tainted by a sort of political violence which the child, in its innocence, is incapable of discerning. Denis’ film describes a colonial era in which racial injustice blends with a sexualized phantasm of the Other: Isaac de Bankole is splendid in his role as a mountain of dignified virility, forced to bow his head whenever his bosses throw a fit. Bosses that are not hardcore racists: their domination is camouflaged by a sort of hypocritical respect, which dilutes their blunt methods of forcing in the eyes of others. The perversion is sweet: the French demand things not because they need them – it’s more than enough for a white person that is somewhat more woke, more connected to the land to arrive at the farm to disrupt the rules, as he chooses to bathe under the open sky, together with the black people –, but also from their desire to preserve a tepid status quo that insidiously ends up being convenient to the dominates, as well.
However, it’s interesting that Denis avoids forcing upon us the facile conclusions of such a tale: “the colonial order is bad”, “white man bears the weight of his own villainy”. Rather – and to avoid one of today’s most popular clichés, that of “non-dogmatic” films (whatever that means) –, I’d say that she transforms the web of memory into a handful of scenes that cannot be reduced to a symbol: scenes without a message in itself, scenes of life, that explode into small concrete actions. Various things happen within the frame, which sets the film beyond the area of sterile interpretation, where every detail is aware that it must transmit something. The filmmaker also has the chance to exercise with various stylistic options: like the remarkable shot – a stopover for the plot – with people of color taking a rest after having worked the entire day in the scorching sun, laying in the shadow of a truck, a tree, or a house, in an almost photogenic standstill. There are numerous such moments, short and easy to miss, in which the film becomes somewhat self-aware, as if it would suddenly remember about itself that it’s a work of art – I’m thinking about this shot, strange in its portrait-like fixity, in which Isaac de Bankole and Giulia Boschi, a butler of color and a white mistress, look towards the camera in complete silence, as if there were in a colonialist painting from the 17th century.
Chocolat inaugurates the career of a filmmaker that is extremely adept at catching the various sensibilities that are floating around in the atmosphere of the time. Together with the same scriptwriter, Jean-Pol Fargeau, in 1994’s J’ai pas sommeil she would connect the massive waves of Eastern-European migration to the xenophobia that ran rampant in the well-off social environments of the continent’s economic centers. And with 2001’s Beau Travail, she will offer one of the strangest and most intense films of the last decades, on the fighters of the Foreign Legion in the Sahel: a film hot in its unchained corporeality, which upends the fable in Chocolat, reducing the transnational heritage to a handful of well-built soldier silhouettes, which the camera scans lasciviously, precisely, with a never-before-seen level of clarity. Chocolat opens this series of slippery gazes, preoccupied with studying the torrid and moist exchanges between people. It slithers between the era’s political thorns, mixing good and bad until they come together in a tale about life, memory, and endless history.
Chocolat is available online, on MUBI.
Claire Denis / Jean-Pol Fargeau
Isaac de Bankole, Giulia Boschi