Claire Denis has come to be recognised as a film maker to reckon with. She is respected for the breadth of her work, her superb vision, and her clean, subtle style. With the release of a boxset of her work exploring attitudes and tensions in colonial Africa, it’s a great time to take a look at her debut feature, Chocolat.
You could watch this film either as quite a quiet story taking place in the 1950s, about a way of life that is slowly dying, or you could watch it as a piece of art, in which everything – from character names to each character’s actions – is a cipher for something else. The entire film is rife with symbolism, from the unsubtle (naming the central character “France”) to the subtle (naming the angry chef, who only speaks English, “Enoch”). The fact that France is a very young girl during the events of the story would suggest that Denis is telling us that French colonialism of the area was partially due to French naivety, and that they should have known better. To have a character in a Denis film only speak English, and to name that character Enoch, is notable – a director as worldly and politically-minded would of course be aware of Enoch Powell, and the connotations that name would have for English audiences, perhaps suggesting that other countries were party to the shoddy treatment of a nation.
There’s a smaller story amongst all of this political grandstanding – that of France herself and the houseboy Protée. It’s artfully played and beautifully subtle, all the more effective for the racial tensions that simmer around them. France’s family have no right to be in the position that they are in, and yet they are able to stay by sheer force of will and the colour of their skin. Protée lives in service to the France’s family, and receives some chiding for it which comes to the fore towards the end of the film, but his friendship with France remains the heart of the film and the thread of emotion that runs through it.
The problem is that the film doesn’t really grab the viewer. It’s fine to create a piece of art that has a message and is to be pondered over, but it has to have something that entices the viewer. While it’s incredibly cinematic, with beautiful cinematography and perfectly choreographed scenes, the story would be equally as effective as a novel or a play. There’s nothing that particularly suggests that this story should be a film, and that’s its only failing. It’s not enjoyable on a visceral level, or particularly on an emotional level, but operates almost entirely on an intellectual level. It provides great food for thought, but little else.