For the month of November Chicago’s Gene Siskel Center is featuring the work of French auteur Claire Denis, capped off with the first run of her new film, Bastards. Most cinephile circles would regard Denis as one of the best contemporary directors working today - a claim I hope to be better informed to discuss by the end of the Siskel Center’s ten-picture run. Having only seen Trouble Every Day and 35 Shots of Rum (films I will revisit during the month), my experience with Denis is clearly limited. Chocolat, Denis’ debut 1988 film, starts the month-long series.
Chocolat opens with a scene reminiscent of \ Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The still image of an ocean front eventually gives way to movement as a black man and his child lay in the sand, water ebbing and flowing over their bodies. A swift pan movement shows a woman overlooking the father and son. Denis makes subtle gestures in her opening sequence, where her lead character functions as a voyeuristic purveyor of the foreign and unknowing, thereby setting off inklings of where the narrative will be heading. The woman, going by the name France, wanders a trail on the outskirts of the oceanfront. Eventually, she’s picked up by the son and father seen in the initial sequence, whereby she accepts a ride to a distant airport. Passing by the forestry of the West African setting triggers France’s memory and we jarringly are tossed into the past - 1950s colonial West Africa.
We see France as a child growing up along the lonely African terrain. Her father serves as a cog of colonial government, often leaving the household to attend to business. Meanwhile, France’s home is occupied by no others like her. An only child, she forges a close bond with the resident servant of the household - a black man named Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). De Bankolé maintains the same stringent stoicism seen in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, though here his dutiful servitude is juxtaposed with domesticity. His ripped physique only makes his domesticity register as increasingly jarring in what becomes one of many of Denis’ subtle gestures in defining the historical context of colonial Africa.
Chocolat derives much of its tension from Protée’s relationship with France’s mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi). The two operate in a household much in the same way a husband and wife operate, though the clearly defined social structure refutes any affection between them. In what could’ve easily been an exercise in melodramatics between two would-be lovers is a display of patience. Denis gracefully captures the unrequited love between Protée and Aimée as a form of social conditioning. As the colonial village sees a measure of excitement when a plane crashes nearby, the passengers share living quarters with the central character. The balance shared by Protée and France’s parents is compromised as Protée is victimized by white colonialists.
France’s role as surveyor may have instigated the narrative but Chocolat is first and foremost a film that belongs to Protée’s emotional and physical servitude. His stoicism is finally shaken in a striking scene where, in the nude after contending with the in-and-outs of domesticity, Protée rinses soap off his body in his outdoor shower. Almost seen by a passing Aimée, Protée presses himself against a brick wall and is overwhelmed into tears. It’s a scene that encapsulates the subdued emotional rigor of all its characters and imposes a somber cloud over much of the picture. Another scene, involving France and Protée touching a hot pipe only to get burned serves as the connective link between the two - a scar that unites the two forever. As Chocolat returns to France as an adult, the scar remains with a character remarking that her palm offers no sense of past or future: stains of colonialism haunting the present.