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||IMDB Rating: 7.4/10 from PG-13 votes
||Release: 01 May 1989 /
||Director: Claire Denis,
||Synopsis: A young French woman returns to the vast silence of West Africa to contemplate her childhood days in a colonial outpost in Cameroon. Her strongest memories are of the family's houseboy, ...
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Set in the Cameroons in West Africa in the 1950s, Claire Denis' Chocolat is
a beautifully photographed and emotionally resonant tone poem that depicts
the effects of a dying colonialism on a young family during the last years
of French rule. The theme is similar to the recent Nowhere in Africa, though
the films are vastly different in scope and emphasis. The film is told from
the perspective of an adult returning to her childhood home in a foreign
country. France Dalens (Mireille Perrier), a young woman traveling through
Cameroon, recalls her childhood when her father (Francois Cluzet) was a
government official in the French Cameroons and she had a loving friendship
with the brooding manservant, Protée (Isaach de Bankolé). The heart of the
film, however, revolves around France's mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi) and her
love/hate relationship with Protée that is seething with unspoken sexual
The household is divided into public and private spaces. The white families
rooms are private and off limits to all except Protée who works in the house
while the servants are forced to eat and shower outdoors, exposing their
naked bronze bodies to the white family's gazes. It becomes clear when her
husband Marc (François Cluzet) goes away on business that Aimée and Protée
are sexually attracted to each other but the rules of society prevent it
from being openly acknowledged. In one telling sequence, she invites him
into her bedroom to help her put on her dress and the two stare at each
other's image in the mirror with a defiant longing in their eyes, knowing
that any interaction is taboo.
The young France (Cecile Ducasse) also forms a bond with the manservant,
feeding him from her plate while he shows her how to eat crushed ants and
carries her on his shoulders in walks beneath the nocturnal sky. In spite of
their bond, the true nature of their master-servant relationship is apparent
when France commands Protée to interrupt his conversation with a teacher and
immediately take her home, and when Protée stands beside her at the dinner
table, waiting for her next command. When a plane loses its propeller and is
forced to land in the nearby mountains, the crew and passengers must move
into the compound until a replacement part can be located. Each visitor
shows their disdain for the Africans, one, a wealthy owner of a coffee
plantation brings leftover food from the kitchen to his black mistress
hiding in his room. Another, Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), an arrogant white
Frenchman, upsets the racial balance when he uses the outside shower, eats
with the servants, and taunts Aimée about her attraction to Protée leading
her to a final emotional confrontation with the manservant.
Chocolat is loosely autobiographical, adapted from the childhood memories of
the director, and is slowly paced and as mysterious as the brooding
isolation of the land on which it is filmed. Denis makes her point about the
effects of colonialism without preaching or romanticizing the characters.
There are no victims or oppressors, no simplistic good guys. Protée is a
servant but he is also a protector as when he stands guard over the bed
where Aimée and her daughter sleep to protect them from a rampaging hyena.
It is a sad fact that Protée is treated as a boy and not as a man, but
Bankolé imbues his character with such dignity and stature that it lessens
the pain. Because of its pace, Western audiences may have to work hard to
fully appreciate the film and Denis does not, in Roger Ebert's phrase,
"coach our emotions". The truth of Chocolat lies in the gestures and glances
that touch the silent longing of our heart.
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