Chocolat - Claire Denis

By Moira Sullivan

Isaach De Bankolé and Cécile Ducasse in Chocolat.

The League of Nations mandated 91% of Cameroun to France after World War 1. It was not until 1960 that it became independent. Clair Denis' film Chocolat concerns a young French girl’s upbringing in Cameroun during the mandate. She lives on a manor where her father Marc Dalens (François Cluzet) is a captain in a colonial outpost and her mother Aimée Dalens  (Giulia Boschi) is head of the household. Assisting her are black servants, and the most prominent and dutiful one is Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). His upbringing in the Christian church and his pride as a black man have contributed to his impeccable sense of morality, and according to de Bankolé who plays him, the hope for the future of Africa.

The grown France (Mireille Perrier) in many ways like Claire Denis who grew up in Dijbouti, returns in the beginning of the film to Cameroun. She is alone and observes a father and his son swimming on the beach. Later the father, Mungo, insists that he give her a ride to the bus stop at least.  Then in a long flashback we are invited into France’s (appropriately named) character and her early life; this is the history of France in Cameroun.

Claire Denis is a master at elliptical editing, avoidance of music in many scenes, and the absence of action in scenes where life is as it is often uneventful and calm. Everything in the film suggests from our indoctrination from dramatic films that something horrible is going to happen, because it is so calm. Instead of overt violence, the kind of violence shown in the film is subtle, the language of the colonizers against Africa.

Daily life consists of Marc going to his military post, and coming home in the evening to be with his family. During the day France (Cécile Ducasse in her one and only role) accompanies Protée on his goings about who is a kind and loving guardian to her. At the same time there is a repressed tension between Aimée and Protée whose names almost seem like they belong together. However the racial lines cannot be crossed except as colonizer and colonized.

When Marc is away, Protée becomes the man of the house, and in one scene Aimée commands him to sit in front of the door to her bedroom with rifle in hand to frighten off a prowling hyena. He is clearly disturbed by the dissolution of private and public space in being forced to sit as she sleeps.

One day a plane flies over the country manor and not long after a pilot, his first mate, an officer and his wife and the gruff coffee plantation owner Joseph Delpich (Jacques Denis), and his servant who is his concubine, arrive by foot. The stranded visitors will need to stay for a while with the Dalens until a landing strip is built for their takeoff and engine parts arrive to repair the plane after its rough landing.
Their presence in the house brings the colonial oppression of Cameroun to the surface more overtly. Whereas the Dalens’ have treated the servants benevolently, the new guests treat them as inferior beings. 

Friends of the Dalens come visiting when the airstrip is to be built and bring with them laborers, including the young white French Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin). Not long after that Luc tries to prey on Aimée Dalens. Protée is aware of this and throws him out of the house where he has taken root on the porch. When Aimée then makes advances towards Protée as gratitude for standing up to the oafish Luc he stands her up to shake sense into her and also to make it clear that there is a boundary between them. For this he is banished from the house and put to work in the garage.
France visits him and he is longer is the kind guardian she knew.

The colonial presence in Africa has often been historically glamorized in film but Chocolate shows how the French were tolerated and despised. When the visiting officer’s wife takes ill Marc sends for medical assistance. The assistant is picked up at a school were several men are gathered. This raises Marc’s suspicion but Protée claims they are only talking. Yet it seems like rebellion is brewing. It must be another four years before the country became independent through armed struggle.

© 2013 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 08/07/13
Movie Magazine International