As France, a French woman in her thirties, returns to contemporary Cameroon, she encounters an African American father and his son who think she is a tourist. She gets a ride from them, and a long flashback begins focusing on the woman’s childhood in colonial Cameroon in the 1950s. France’s father is the chief of a colonial administrative subdivision in the Northern outpost Mindif, while her mother runs the house. Much of the film focuses on the mother’s and the child’s daily interactions with the family’s main servant, Protée, as well as with the locals and other white officials. A small plane has to make an emergency landing nearby bringing a motely assembly of characters to the colonial administrator’s house who cause tensions as they wait for the plane to be repaired and a runway to be built. At the end of the film, the plane leaves and the narrative returns to the contemporary frame, which ends with France being at the airport with a ticket in her hand.
Chocolat, Claire Denis’ widely noted first feature film, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival, was certainly inspired by her own childhood in various African places where her father was a colonial administrator, but the film remains fictional, drawing on other sources as well, for instance Ferdinand Oyono’s novel, Une vie de boy (1956, translated as Houseboy), as well as African American Vietnam veterans living in Senegal, who Denis had encountered during a trip and about whom she wanted to make a documentary. She returned to fiction after being reprimanded by a local for being an insensitive tourist (Strauss 1990: 31). A meditation on French colonialism and its aftermath, Chocolat evokes intimate and difficult relations in the colonial order by summoning feelings, textures, bodies in moments of contact and disconnection.
Colonial politics remain on the margins of the narrative but are nonetheless complexly evoked. In once scene, we see shots of graves with German names on them and in another an inscription on the house that says ‘this house is the last house on earth’ – both traces of a German colonial past. We encounter a British official, and a South Asian cook more familiar with the culinary habits of British colonisers. The family’s neighbours are Norwegian missionaries. And we know that the locals are meeting at night at the local school house – a hint of independence to come even though at this point there is no confrontation. As the father, Marc Dalens, says at some point, ‘One day we’ll get kicked out of here’.
Denis very carefully articulates point(s) of view within the film. To begin with, she ‘avoided any attempt to create an African perspective or point of view in the film’ (Mayne 2005: 36). In the opening scene, we see a black father and son bathe in the surf, until a 180-degree pan reveals that what we see is to a significant extent filmed from the perspective of a young French woman, France, who sits on the edge of the beach. And yet, some of the shots, especially the close-ups of father and son, cannot be from her perspective, so that as spectators we both follow her experience and yet are also displaced from it. The same is true of the story within the flashback, which focuses significantly on how the young girl experiences the colonial social order. Channelling much of our experience through the child has important consequences: the child can be somewhat more transgressive, as she is allowed to touch things (making the film’s world a very tactile one), goes places where adults cannot (we often see her standing on the edges of spaces occupied by black Africans, while at the same time she also watches the white settlers from a distance). Locating point of view in a child validates a peripheral perspective and makes her a ‘go-between’ (Breugnet 2004: 61).
The child watches and participates in intimate colonial dynamics of power, which the characters cannot escape. France’s father, Marc, is a benevolent and often self-aware colonial administrator who nonetheless does not hesitate to use his power; often absent, he is relegated to the periphery of the film, his authority decentralised. His wife, Aimée, and her relationship with the black servant, Protée, is more central to the film. Indeed, Denis has said that she was particularly interested in wives of colonial administrators, who ‘found themselves in incredibly violent situations’ (Strauss 1990: 32, my translation). Simultaneously dependent and authoritarian, Aimée at some point desires Protée, yet this (stereotypical) narrative is not allowed to play out: Protée refuses. While more transgressive of rules, the child also enters these dynamics of power: on the one hand she is very close to Protée, for instance able to find the answer to his riddles, or eating the ant-covered bread he prepares for her; on the other hand she easily learns to order him around (as when she orders him to return home, or when she orders him to eat her soup). He is her mentor, yet she infantilises him.
The people from the plane, stranded at the Dalens’ house, may seem more problematically colonialist, yet there is a continuum between them and the Dalenses (Mayne 2005: 39). For instance Luc may want to disturb the colonial order when he works with the black men, and yet he asserts it very forcefully when he aggresses Protée verbally and physically, or when he does not respect the latter’s space by using his shower. Likewise, Aimée bans Protée from the house after he rebukes her sexual advance. And Delpich hides his African mistress while engaging in some of the film’s most racist behaviour.
While many black characters (and many African actors) populate the scenes and have social spaces of their own, the camera, the film and thus the spectator have less access to them. We visit some of their gathering spaces, usually following France, yet remain at a distance. We see one female servant look into the house and, together with France, make fun of Jonathan Boothby. The best-known African character is certainly house servant Protée, played by French-Ivoirien actor Isaach de Bankolé, in a crucial but, to a significant degree, silent role. Nonetheless, he gets quite a lot of reaction shots. He has the local school teacher write a letter to his parents, though he tells France that it was for his fiancée. His humiliation at the intrusion of his private space is obvious and most visible when Aimée and France almost surprise him in the servants’ shower. Like other Africans, we can occasionally hear him talk in a local, untranslated language. In the film’s final scene, in the framing narrative, one of the three workers at the airport is played by de Bankolé, but the film refuses to establish a clearer connection between Protée in the 1950s and the airport worker in the 1980s. It is symptomatic that Protée speaks in riddles: like African culture more generally, he remains opaque, not entirely accessible to France or the spectator. In a crucial moment, the father tells the child what the horizon is: ‘the closer you get to that line, the farther it moves’. It seems an appropriate metaphor for the colonialists’ as well as the spectators’ encounter with Africa and Africans.