French Colonialism, Doomed Love, and the Introduction of Claire Denis

04/21/2011 1:55 PM |

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The Museum of Art and Design is currently saluting the Ivory Coast-born French actor Isaach de Bankolé, whose self-control has no limits; their film series continues tomorrow night with Chocolat.

No, this is not your mother’s Chocolat, the one where Juliette Binoche drives out the prejudice and fear from a small-minded town and hooks up with Johnny Depp. This is Claire Denis’s Chocolat, a 1988 debut that announced the arrival of one of the best directors of her generation.

As in White Material, her latest exploration of the disastrous consequences of the French occupation of much of Africa, Denis maintains a discreet distance from the Frenchwoman she puts at the center of the story, filtering everything through her own omniscient gaze even when she adopts her main character’s perspective.

Chocolat’s France (played by Cécile Ducasse as a girl and Mireille Perrier as a young adult, both underacting nicely) is an imposter in her homeland. France’s father—like Denis’s—was a French colonial civil servant when she was a girl, stationed in Cameroon. When she comes back for a visit in a brief story that frames the main narrative, the adult France gets a ride from an American expat who asks if she’s a tourist. “In a way,” she replies.

The main story is a flashback to France’s childhood, a combination of what the adult France remembers and what she reconstructs in retrospect. Denis immerses us in the daily life of the sprawling mansion where France grew up, as an only child whose main companions are her father (François Cluzet), her mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi, who looks like a more voluptuous young Barbara Hershey) and Protée (the great Isaach De Bankole), the majestic man who runs their household, serving as a combination butler, maid, security guard, and nanny.

Like France, the camera never strays far from Protée. It’s easy to see why she adores this beautiful man, with his quiet self-discipline, easy warmth, and seemingly effortless ability to master any challenge. And, as we come to realize—though the child and her father never do—she’s not the only member of her family who loves Protée.

The big house and its servants’ compound are haunted by the ghosts of earlier white occupiers, including German solders who bivouacked and were buried there during WWI. White people are still emphatically in charge—of the nation as well as the house—but their days are numbered. We know that not just because France’s father tells a guest, after a particularly egregious display of white privilege: “One day, we’ll get kicked out of here.”

The cautiously defiant stances of the men France’s father interrupts during a nighttime meeting at the local school (“what are they doing there?” he asks Protée uneasily) signals the coming shift in the balance of power. So do the shots in which Denis shows Africans going about their business, stationing her camera at a respectful distance and looping in no dialogue in post-production. We can only guess at what they’re saying, our awareness of being shut out of the action mirroring young France’s perspective.

The land itself seems poised to shrug off its invaders, too immense to be tamed by such puny creatures. Denis and cinematographer Robert Alazraki serve up the landscape in stately widescreen, and their long takes and slow pans often frame small people against vast vistas unbroken by houses, roads, or any other sign of human habitation. South African composer Abdullah Ibrahim’s bright, percussive score leaves plenty of space for the silence and ambient sounds (the chirp of crickets at night, the hum of the generator that powers the house, the hiss of a match being struck as Aimée lights a cigarette) that make up most of the soundtrack.

Against this closely observed, densely textured backdrop, the unspoken attraction between Aimée and Protée, which racism has distorted and forced into hiding, smolders until it gets dangerously hot. Their nonviolent but explosive showdown sends out emotional shock waves, rocking France’s world for reasons she fathoms only in hindsight.

Denis and co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau cut from the pivotal break between Aimée and Protée to one in which France’s father tells his daughter about the horizon. The sometimes on-the-nose dialogue is the film’s weakest link, but his speech is a beauty, doubling as a comment on the color line that splinters the country France loves, distorting relationships and crippling lives. “The closer you get to that line, the farther it moves,” her father says. “If you walk toward it, it moves away…. You see it, but it doesn’t exist.”