Claire Denis works in a slightly different idiom from many other filmmakers who train their eye and heart on the landscape of Africa, mainly because she is plainly aware that there are clear if not quite terminal welters in her relationship with those filmmakers. Namely, she is white, and they aren’t. More than that, she isn’t African, although her memories of growing up the daughter of a colonial civil servant in French West Africa inform her every film. Colonial history shadows her every film, but also a sense of fragile distance, an attitude of not only forbidding and crippling economic and psychological depression but of being withheld from that depression, of a European child who lives in African but unmistakably confronts it partially as vacation-land or fairy tale. A child only aware in fits and spurts of the oppressive economic shackles upon which her life is built, who sees her family’s black servant as friend, father, and many other things, but not necessarily understanding that he is forced into that position, or that he operates out of coercion.
Denis’ debut film, Chocolat, is implicitly, even explicitly, the story of that girl, Denis’ own childhood, partially fictionalized here as France (Cecile Ducasse), daughter of Aimee Dalens (Giulia Boschi) and Marc Dalens (Francois Cluzet). Their family servant is Protee (Isaach De Bankole), who also establishes an affair of sorts with Aimee, one exacerbated and knotted up by the systemic dynamics of colonialism as well as the intimate interpersonal strife of master-servant dynamics. The adult France (Mireille Perrier) returning to her childhood home spurs a memory quilt of fleeting and diffuse images of her childhood, one we are privy to, even if she sometimes isn’t.
Chocolat deals in pliable ellipses that reveal through absence, an absence that inextricably offers a critical perspective on a history, a history of Africa, that is as much about overlooking and under-populating the truth or living through mental fictions or half-truths that colonize the mind. Even better, Denis evokes the oppression of colonial Africa without immensely saturating her film in gloom or macro-level-politicalcommentary; this is the political-as-personal, and, more inspiringly, oppression as a thoroughly dulled and essentially mundane reality. Chocolat isn’t a film about visceral or corporal punishment, the accustomed elements of oppression in media, but the unaccustomed elements of racial dynamics gleamed through glances, gazes, tones of voice, the undercurrents and “lower registers” of race that tend not to animate many filmic tales of oppression when an atmosphere of corporeal punishment and racial spectacle is preferable for the masses who can more easily identify the latter as oppression.
Chocolat is primarily about premonitions of colonialism in young France’s world, eerie splinters in the way the characters act that, when revisited in the mind, are suggestive of deeper racial wounds. It is a film charged with questions about performance and identity, as well as embodiment, with Protee carrying himself in fundamentally alternate patterns and states depending upon who is watching. The pseudo-sexual spectacle of Protee showering behind a wall submerges into desperate loneliness when his spectators leave and the dialectical frame – he foregrounded on the right, two white females of varying ages in the background on the left – transforms into a personal portrait of Protee’s intimate self. When the white characters leave, the camera trains on him, catching whiffs of his behind-closed-doors expressiveness that young France would probably presume simply isn’t a part of him.
Obviously, Denis is not necessarily for historical scholars who preach only the validity of objectivity, misconstruing literal history as the only viable channel for a cinema that deconstructs, challenges, and catapaults the colonial mission and its cinema. That Denis would rather fantasize the sexualization of this black man and his attendant relationship with a white woman than historicize any mass-scale political action casts Denis as something more than tour guide to the years of oppression in Africa. Her dramatic poem lacks the safety or sanctity of facts to play with or rest on. She doesn’t detail the history of governmental oppression or racism at a macro-level view; there are no scenes of real-politicking. For her, race in colonial Africa isn’t simply a string of facts but a psychic space, one that requires plunging into a personal story of men and women in an out of the way place, the dynamics of oppression, race, and gender suffusing their every moment even when national or international politics seem as far away from their desert space as possible.
And a space of contradictions, among which Denis is mistrustful of definitive takes or canonical answers. For Protee, is wooing his master a form of rebellion against her white husband, or it is a null quotient that amounts to nothing? Even so, is satiating his desire alone a form of rebellion against a system that is designed to foreground white desire? But what if his desire in this case is also the desire of his white master, who is drawn to him as well? And does fulfilling desires that are essentially possible within his colonized status only withhold him from partaking in a more revolutionary and liberating form of desire, that of emancipatory action? Would this hypothetical action just end in death? When attraction curdles into a magnetic game of teasing, is this multi-racial couple playing with political fire or merely pulling each others’ tails? Denis’ film takes place in the uneven stagger between colonialism and neo-colonialism, when certain shackles of power were being clamped down on and others loosened, and Aimee and France’s stunted attempts to close the emotional distance between them and their servants is appropriately glimpsed in ambiguous fits and starts without any literal or totalizing headway gained or lost.
Denis lives for these dialectical conversations, where each terminal answer only cracks open fissures of political and social ambivalence. Speaking of which, what is little France’s role in all this? We are spectator to her spectating. But, although Chocolat is hardly as cryptic or de-interiorized as Denis’ Beau Travail, where characters are (wonderfully) little more than icons in a rarefied, forbidding montage, France is anything but open book. Denis’ free-verse visual impressions are indelible, but they are not meant to laser-focus us on a particular argument so much as to reconstruct the lightly opaque memories of a child with the relative candor and soft brilliance of a space between her mind and reality.
And what of the space? This Africa seems timeless, in that it feels gripped in stasis and crushing immobility. Denis’ palette is dazzling but never insists upon itself, and her sharpest observations deal in imaginative rather than literal space. When a white drifter crashes an airplane near the compound and, unaccustomed to the explicit racial separation, uses the servants’ shower, his white body in this black space violates the demarcations of space and color. When Protee confronts him about it, Protee actually seems offended, wounded, perturbed by the idea that this white man could take his space from him even if theoretically operating out of color-blind racial indifference. The notionally degraded space – the one designed for blacks to be lesser than whites – temporarily becomes a kind of black haven, a lone space of imaginative ownership for Protee. It’s all he has.
It’s also, finally, a hazy space, a mental fiction. The framing of the film is, as mentioned, an adult France returned to Africa to visit her youth, perhaps to reconnect with or appropriate some theoretical African identity she now wants to own for herself, perhaps to notice progress or lack thereof. Who can say. But the film positions her past through a car-window not unlike a film screen; France is on her way to her destination in an African taxi, and looking out the window onto the landscape ushers in her memories, which are both true and biased, much as the film space and screen constructs a world that contacts our present truth but is distant and biased as well, one that can never fully be reconciled with the fact of ourselves in the present.
Glimpsed with little overt exoticism, Denis eventually returns to the present, out of France’s film – her mind-space – and out of France’s film – the narrative that is about her – to conclude with an image of three African men shooting the shit, not minding a downpour of rain, themselves staring off in the distance at a verdant, resplendent grassy field. The film tackles questions of libido unconstrained by social order and transgressive desire, but in the final image, does it harness some mysterious form of transgression? Perhaps the sight of three black men just existing, just being, just watching and observing a land they’ve lived in their entire life, unlike France, a land that is eminently present to them. The sight of three black men simply being is a powerful sight in a medium that routinely defines black characters not only by stereotypes but by their positioning as pawns in a narrative that ushers them through motions or toward a greater purpose. Here is the sight of three black men simply being, even as the film, with its wide-shot and semi-alienating frame, humbles us by reminding us that their agency, their imagination, their sight, their being, must be partially alien to us.