Chocolat 1988 Essay

On NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, THEME & STYLE:

Borrowing literary concepts, Narrative Frame, or “frame-story,” presents “a preliminary narrative” or story, within which one or more characters tell stories (Abrams 195) - e.g. a single story or a sequence of stories remembered from the character’s past--which can constitute “a complete and rounded narrative,” as well “as a means of characterizing the teller” (Abrams 195).

Summary by Philibert: The adult France Dalens has returned to Cameroon and is on her way to Mindif, “where she used to live with her parents when the country was under French rule” (207).  A black man traveling with his son, whom France first sees on a beach, gives her ride into Limbé, “the closest town where she is to catch an autobus to Douala.  The car scene triggers a film-long flashback, in which France recalls fragments of the Dalens’s life in troubled colonial times,” and reveals her mother “Aimée’s desire for the family’s servant, Protée . . .” (207; emphasis added).

The narrative frame and the long, extended flashback (hardly therefore a “flash”)define thefilm’s narrative structure, bridging “two distinct periods—postcolonial and colonial Cameroon—and two different life stages—France as a young woman and as a preteen,” “creating an atmosphere which evokes both an era gone and a daydream” and blurs time and space (Philibert 209-210). 

In literary terms, France Dalens might be considered the film’s primary participant NARRATOR, or story teller.  The camera’s “eye” is presumably directed by her “gaze,” visual representation of the past focused on and limited to scenes from her childhood that the adult France “remembers” as in a waking “daydream,” which seems to commingle what the child France herself had witnessed first-hand, overheard or been told about—or the adult France reads about in her father’s Notebook, which she carries with her.  Adult + child France’s memories, attitudes and reflections shape the POINT OF VIEW of the film.  In cinematic terms, “the camera takes on the . . . ‘participant observer’ role” in the film narrative (Morgan 146).

As Janice Morgan observes, Chocolat is an autobiographical film that

"deals in a very personal way with the French colonial experience in Africa, addressing not only the overt, social aspects of the colonial experience but also--in conjunction with those--exploring its unacknowledged, psychological dimensions.  This story of a French family living in Cameroon during the 1950s is recounted largely from a European perspective--but from one, interestingly, 'on the edge' of that perspective, since the events are narrated from the point of view of a child growing up between two different races, two different worlds" (Morgan 145; emphasis added).

The story is told partly through the eyes of the young girl, and the film opens in the present, showing her as an adult in 1988, going back to visit her childhood home.  But what is most important about the story are the things the young girl could not have known, or could have understood only imperfectly.  And the central fact is that Protee is the best man, the most capable man, in the district, and that her mother and Protee feel a strong sexual attraction to each other” (Ebert; emphasis added).

Morgan maintains that Chocolat has “dual protagonists, representing both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of events”-- France and Protee--and the camera “eye” represents their dual perspectives on events (146). Child France and adult Protee form a special bond, as both insiders and outsiders, with the ability to “cross the color line”: child France is “not yet a full player in the colonial drama but a silent witness to it, from the edges of a deeply divided social order”; adult Protee is another silent witness who, as “the trusted employee,” can move “back and forth from the white governor’s house to the black workers’ quarters” (Morgan 146). If, in the narrative past, the young girl imperfectly understands all she witnesses, the camera “eye” also makes viewers aware of the silent observing presence of Protee at key events, and we are invited to imagine his perspective as adult colonized African “other.”

What is remembered, the scenes that are presented, are selective and selected – perhaps unconsciously by the character France, but certainly consciously by the filmmaker Claire Denis - to develop dramatic plot and themes. Frame story and embedded past story represent particularly meaningful life stages, events and messages, focusing on individual and collective relationships: e.g. between Protee and child France, drawn together as outsiders “excluded respectively from the white European world and the adult world” (Philibert 211), and between colonizers (e.g. Marc and Aimee Dalens) and colonized (e.g. Protee).

KEY PLOT EVENTS: Three key events stir controversy and advance the plot of the past story to its climax: “the visit of Jonathan Boothby; the emergency plane landing which leaves five Europeans and an African maid stranded on the Dalens’s estate . . .; and the intrusion of Luc Segalen . . .” (Philibert 213; emphasis added).

PARALLELS: Denis creates many suggestive parallels within and between the narrative frame story and the past story, their characters and themes in Chocolat.  Look for parallels.  For example, interesting parallels between “narrative frame” travelers adult France and “Mungo” Park – both exiles and migrants - are suggested: e.g. both had come to Africa seeking to reconnect to  their “roots,” (day)dreams from which they must awake to unpleasant present realities: e.g. Mungo is robbed of his delusions of brotherhood by an early encounter with a Cameroonian “brother”; and Mungo can read neither past nor future in France’s scarred palm  - emblem of a tenuous bridge burned long ago by Protee and not to be rebuilt now.  Parallels are also suggested in identities and relationships among France, her mother, Mungo and Protee: e.g. Mungo refuses France’s offer of a drink and perhaps more –as Protee once refused her mother’s Aimee’s offer of more, at a climactic moment in the past story.

More on Structure,Theme & Cinematic Style: Chocolat emphasizes “a process of reflecting, re-assembling and remembering the colonial . . . past” (Villella). “Chocolat explores the subtle and discreet workings of power, desire, betrayal and dependency in colonial inter-relationships.  The film refuses to present a reality in which characters are polarized as either good or bad, oppressor or victim; instead it dramatizes colonial relationships as complex, ambiguous and intricate” (Villella).  The film’s characterizations and thematic messages are delivered in unconventional ways: “tableaux-like composition . . . dominates its style and the silent, observant and calculated regard of the camera”; “a lyrical rhythm, where the characters are present in their bodily movement, gesture, expression” and “minimal exchanges between characters and their unspoken feelings” (Villella).  “Where nothing is spoken out loud between characters, their individual movements, gestures and expressions become significant moments of revelation”; indeed, according to Villella, “[t]he film’s most significant and telling moments are conveyed exclusively through bodily expression and gesture.”

Claire Denis “teaches you to think through your eyes” (Hinson).

Denis employs the power of the visual to convey a plethora of information in an instant and to create a strong emotional impact. Silent observation becomes a powerful and highly articulate space. The vast silence of West Africa dominates the narrative. Stylistically this is conveyed through long shots laboriously panning the sparse West African landscape. These shots are marked by the absence of a musical soundtrack traditionally employed to apologise for the absence of naturally occurring diegetic sounds or dialogue. South African musician, Abdullah Ibrahim, composes a selectively used musical soundtrack. The extended shots of a silent landscape run parallel to the silence shared by Protee and France, both culturally disempowered subjects – France as a child; Protee as an African servant. Silence is a powerful tool as it allies France and Protee in a mutual position of astute observation” (Sandars).

Dir. by Claire Denis

Claire Denis’s debut film, Chocolat, opens with a two-minute static shot of a man and child, both black, playing in shallow ocean waters. When the camera does finally move, it pans nearly 180 degrees to the right before coming to rest on a young white woman. I thought little of the shot the first time I saw the film, but watching Chocolat again last night, I was struck by the economy of that single, simple camera movement. By dividing the frame in perfect halves, the shot’s composition introduces what will become one of the film’s central metaphors, the horizon line; by recontextualizing an idyllic image of a father and son (presumably) through what amounts to a cutless eyeline match, the pan firmly establishes the film’s tricky but essential subjective perspective.

The young woman, we eventually learn, is traveling through Cameroon, visiting the lands where she was raised as the daughter of a French colonial district officer. France (Mireille Perrier) carries with her her father’s leatherbound diary of notes and sketches, and she fingers its pages as if the diary were family album, romance novel, and roadmap, all in one. Ten minutes into Chocolat, we leave the present to enter her reverie of the past, and all but the final few minutes of the film are a recreation of her childhood landscape. Specifically, France remembers a time when her father set out on a short trip, leaving her and her mother (Giulia Boschi) behind under the care of their houseboy, Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). Like an Edith Wharton novel, Chocolat appropriates the conventions of a romance plot to comment on restrictive social structures, specifically the complexities of a colonial system that simultaneously dehumanizes and hypersexualizes the colonized, while also degrading the colonizer. It’s brilliantly executed—a story told completely in small but significant gestures.

Reviewers who have deemed “unnecessary” the framing device involving the adult France have completely misread Chocolat, I think. While there is much to recommend in the film—Agnes Godard’s cinematography, the many fine performances, and Denis’s typically seductive pacing, to name just a few—Denis’s handling of the film’s subjective perspective is what differentiates this film from other earnest and well-intentioned examinations of racism and/or colonialism. (There is probably room here for a discussion of the differences between Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, and Anthony Minghella’s also-good but differently-focused film adaptation, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Take, for example, the most significant of Chocolat‘s many small gestures: the moment when the mother reaches slowly from her position on the floor to touch Protée’s calf. It’s a perfectly staged sequence, more charged and transgressive than anything imagined in a typical Hollywood sex scene. And Protée’s reaction retains its mystery and shock even on a second viewing. But who is “remembering” this moment? Although Denis’s camera shoots from the vantage point of the young France, three feet or so from the floor, France is not in the room. She could not have witnessed this event, and so we are left to answer any number of questions: Who is telling this story? From what evidence is she reconstructing her narrative? How does something so subjective as memory (not to mention love, faith, and power) distort our understanding of history, both personal and political.

Near the end of Chocolat, France is told by her father, “The closer you get to [the horizon], the farther it moves. You see the line, but it doesn’t exist.” It’s one of those movie lines that screams significance. But recognizing the metaphor as metaphor and unpacking it are very different tasks, and I’m finding the latter a pleasant and surprising challenge. The most banal reading might be something like, “the line that separates the races is culturally-determined and, therefore, surmountable.” There’s nothing in the film to suggest such a rose-colored reading, however, and, really, the film would be dishonest crap if there were. Or, the father’s line might be exploded into some universal platitude about the hopeless quest for understanding. “No matter how hard we search, Truth always remains just out of reach.” But Chocolat is too grounded in specific historical conditions to be reduced to a platitude.

The horizon metaphor begins to find its shape, I think, in juxtaposition with another scene: the moment when the mother reprimands her cook, who speaks in badly broken English. “Enoch, I don’t understand any of what you’re saying,” she tells him. (I can’t comment on the original release of the film, but the DVD wisely leaves the African languages untranslated.) I have always wished that someone would film Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, but Chocolat has made any effort to do so redundant, for at their core both are about the colonizer’s desire to understand the colonized, a desire that is human and noble, on one hand, but too disfigured by power and history to be anything more than patronizing. This is how Gordimer describes the terrifying moment when her heroine, Maureen Smales, recognizes that she is caught in such a trap with her servant, July:

How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing that was to say between them that had any meaning.
Fifteen Years
your boy
you satisfy

But—and this is important—unlike the end of July’s People, which is a story of revolution, Chocolat does offer some portent of hope. The film ends, once again, in the present day. France has hitched a ride from the black man whom she first spotted swimming in the ocean, and whom she soon discovers is actually an American immigrant. This revelation once again recontextualizes Chocolat‘s opening image, calling into question the validity of France’s perspective. (Had she imagined herself witnessing some timeless ritual of real black African life? Did this fantasy put her in closer communion with her mother? With an imagined version of her mother?) Denis, who also spent much of her childhood in colonial Africa, clearly sympathizes with France’s plight. Her desire to understand, to write narratives that discover the human in inhumane circumstances, is noble, is essential, even if fraught with ambiguities and unavoidable landmines.

The final image in Chocolat is another long static shot, the frame divided in half once again by the horizon. Three black men smoke and laugh as an unexpected burst of rain passes through. France is gone, but somehow we have retained her (its) perspective. Denis leaves the camera running for several minutes, inviting us to understand these men, or, at least, fostering in us the desire to do so.

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