Chocolat (1988)

Denis’ semi-autobiographical feature debut sees her reflect on the distant colonialist memory of being a white girl living in Cameroon, in a filmmaking style that is unmistakably hers—sensual, tactile and poetic.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,195

Dir. Claire Denis
1988 | France/Cameroon | Drama | 104 mins | 1.85:1 | French, English & Hausa
M18 (passed clean) for some sexual references

Cast: Isaach De Bankole, Giulia Boschi, Francois Cluzet, Cecile Ducasse, Mireille Perrier
Plot: A French woman returns to her childhood home in Cameroon – formerly a colonial outpost – where she’s flooded by memories, particularly of Protee, her servant.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Colonialism, Race, Childhood, Memory

Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

While I don’t feel Chocolat is as great as it has been made out to be, it is still an important first work by a major filmmaker.  With it, Claire Denis announced her arrival as a fully-formed filmmaker in a style that is unmistakably hers—sensual, tactile and poetic. 

It also represents the earthy and reflective side of her as she tackles colonialist memories that have been imprinted in her mind for decades. 

Here, the focus is on her childhood in Cameroon which makes it an autobiographical work to a large degree, unlike say, one of her later pictures, White Material (2009), a companion piece of sorts that deals more symbolically and less nostalgically with white colonialism in Africa. 

While the plotting occasionally meanders and the narrative having little desire to want to pull everything, including characters, together in a significant way, one could perhaps admire how Denis plays with mood as well as sexual tension despite much of the film being told from the perspective of a child who has yet the maturity to appreciate the context of her immediate environment. 

“Your palm is strange, can’t see anything. No past, no future.”

In the sweltering heat and a sea of black bodies, a white woman (the child’s mother) naturally stands out.  Her relationship with her black servant when her husband is away is probably the most interesting dynamic of the film as it pivots on a narrative ultimately about the beginning of the end of white colonialism in Africa. 

Both aspects—the relationship that gives out subtle if strong hints of the sexual desire that can never be fulfilled, as well as the ever-changing power dynamics of race in the face of a modernising Africa—are what gives Chocolat a sense of masculinity entrapped but also transposed—the White Man in all of his proud steadfastness must now give way to the morally superior ‘Other’. 

In that vein, one could see Denis’ work as thematically rich and psychologically complex, like many of the outstanding movies she would make in the future.

Grade: A-


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