And yet, the white characters remain somewhat opaque as well, above all because Denis does not adhere to a clear-cut cause-and-effect narrative driven by character psychology. The narration is elliptical and open-ended, refusing conclusions. The relationship between the framing narrative and the flashback remains open to interpretation: to be sure, in the end we see workers load African art onto planes, suggesting that some form of neocolonialism continues. But what the relationship between colonialism and neocolonialism is, is left open. And the adult France never actually talks about her childhood (Breugnet 2004: 53). In the end, she leaves, but we do not know why or where she goes. And we know remarkably little about Marc Dalens or even his wife Aimée. The film is structured around an interruption, a plane crash. Therefore we know even less about the other characters who enter and leave on the plane. What is Boothby’s story? Or even the coffee planter’s? Why does Luc act the way he does? Denis has explicitly said that she prefers not to have psychological explanations (Bonvoisin and Brault-Wiart 1989: 36). As a consequence, all characters remain a bit strange, putting the spectator in a complex, open-ended relationship to them.
Instead of a cause-and-effect-driven narrative based on character motivation, the film opts for what one critic has called a ‘plastic narration’ (David et al. 2008: 61ff). Chocolat is driven by dynamic, quasi-embodied and carefully composed images arranged in a rhythm. Mayne has noted the importance of detail – the ‘seemingly insignificant detail’ – in Denis’s films, and yet ‘while every detail matters, it isn’t always clear how’ (Mayne 2005: 2). How should we in the end understand the ants on the girl’s bread, the inscription on the house, the men who pee at the roadside, the chicken foot, the song Marc Dalens sings? These details evoke and provoke a feeling; they do not explain.
And these visual details are often haptical. Denis, above all, films bodies; bodies in long shots that seem frighteningly tiny in the harsh, hilly and arid landscape, bodies in close up, as in the first scene, when we see sand stick to the arm of a black boy, and sand stick to the foot of the white woman. Here, the tactility that the figure of the child introduces becomes important. The ants and the soup France eats. The body parts she touches and names (and which the boy will touch and name again). The blood Protée smears on her wrist. And, most importantly, the hand she burns when she touches a hot pipe. The tactile relationship she has with the African colony can be painful. It erases the lifelines on her hand, rendering her opaque, giving her ‘no past, no future’. The film works somewhat similarly on the spectator: in the wake of a fragmented narrative with long pauses, the strange plasticity of the image imposes itself on us. Our experience of the film becomes an encounter with ‘the coherent strangeness of a carnal cinema’ (David et al. 2008: 7, my translation).
Starting with Chocolat, her first feature film, Claire Denis has carved herself out a space as film auteur with a distinct style. She herself has pointed out how Antonioni’s L’Avventura, when she saw it as a teenager, ‘plunged her into an extraordinary state of mind’ (Bonvoisin and Brault-Wiart 1989: 34, my translation). Comparisons with German director Wim Wenders, for whom she worked as an assistant, could easily be made. But Chocolat can be put in other contexts. Stylistically, it can also be put in dialogue with films that want to touch the spectator physically (see Barker 2009). And, of course, the film is part of a larger group of films about the colonial legacy; it stands in critical relation to socalled ‘heritage films’ if only because it refuses any simple nostalgia (Beugnet 2004: 49–52). In doing so, it becomes part of a spate of films made by female directors that take a critical view of French colonial history (see Strauss 1990). Such a process is both laudable and not unproblematic, as one anecdote from the film’s production indicates: The house in which much of the story was filmed had to be built by local villagers, into whose hands it passed after the filming, and who were thus left with a house, but also with a reconstructed colonial architecture (Bonvoisin 1989: 40).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: TF1 Films Production, La SEPT, WDR Cologne. Director: Claire Denis. Producers: Alain Belmondo and Gérard Grosner. Screenwriters: Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau. Cinematographer: Robert Alazraki. Original Music: Abdullah Ibrahim. Editor: Claudine Merlin. Cast: Isaach de Bankolé (Protée), Giulia Boschi (Aimée Dalens), François Cluzet (Marc Dalens), Cécile Ducasse (France Dalens, as girl), Mireille Perrier (France Dalens), Emmet Judson Chocolat (1988) 141 Williamson (William J. ‘Mungo’ Park), Kenneth Cranham (Jonathan Boothby), Jean-Claude Adelin (Luc), Jacques Denis (Joseph Delpich).]
Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2009.
Martine Beugnet, Claire Denis, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004.
Samra Bonvoisin and Mary-Anne Brault-Wiart (eds), ‘Claire Denis’, in L’aventure du premier film, Paris, Editions Bernard Barrault, 1989, pp. 33–45.
Sébastien David, Rémi Fontanel, Fabrice Fuentes and Paul Givert, Le cinéma de Claire Denis, ou l’énigme des sens, Lyon, Aléas, 2008.
Judith Mayne, Claire Denis, Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Frédéric Strauss, ‘Féminin colonial’, Cahiers du cinéma, No. 434, July–August 1990, pp. 28–33.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.