I have no idea where such expectations came from, but I’m rather ashamed to admit now that I went into Chocolat (Claire Denis, France/Cameroon, 1988) thinking it was going to be a rather conventional film, a solid if comparatively unexceptional starting point for one of the most interesting directors working today. And while it admittedly doesn’t quite reach the highest points of her career so far, Chocolat is a debut film of remarkable assurance, and establishes Denis as one of those rare directors whose unmistakable aesthetic appears to have emerged fully formed right from the start.
What is truly remarkable, and what confirms a rather formidable confidence for a first-time director, is how relentlessly distanced the film keeps the viewer from the unfolding narrative–at first this simply seems to be indicative of the limited perspective of childhood, but as the film continues it becomes clear that something more rigorous and exacting is being undertaken: the articulation of a very particular (and extremely nuanced) type of post-colonial perspective where the member of the colonizing class subversively identifies with the colonized subject.
This is exactly what happens to young France (the name serving as a a rather uncharacteristically heavy-handed bit of symbolism), the white French girl whose attachment to her family’s dignified servant (Isaach De Bankolé) ends up superseding any feelings of identification with her parents and the comforts of the bureaucratic class that they so clearly enjoy. This inevitably creates a precarious situation, as France is never able to fully own her privilege as a member of the colonizing class nor is able to assimilate into the colonized position, and instead becomes suspended in a ghost-like state between these two clashing worlds.
As it turns out, of course, the entirety of Denis’s subsequent oeuvre has operated within this type of “in-between” space, and while the specific locales change, the thoughtful dedication in exploring the instability, vulnerability and (occasional) pleasures and insights these places afford–both of a physical and psychic type–do not. It is also interesting to note that throughout her career Denis has cinematically returned to Africa with almost an perfect symmetry–Chocolat in 1988, Beau Travail in 1999 and White Material in 2009, itself a fascinating repetition that itself deserves a thoughtful analysis. I hate to admit that my students almost universally disliked it–“it just didn’t go anywhere” became the common refrain–but nearly all grudgingly had to admit there were moments and sequences of remarkable power and resonance. And for me, it was a hypnotic film experience.