I continue my exploration of the films on the Criterion Channel and stumbled upon the works of Claire Denis, the stumble eventually turned into a week-long binge on titles related or set in Africa – both pre-colonial and post-colonial.
My first stop was the movie Chocolat released in 1988, taking place in Cameroon, West Africa. The story is told from the perspective of France a young girl living in the country while it was still a possession of France. France befriends Protée, a quiet and diligent house servant who seems to understand and appreciate her childlike aloofness of the situation they are in.
While not specified, the story appears to be set around the late 1950s – just before the independence of Cameroon – and the sense of hostility is palpable. France’s father, Marc, appears to play the part of an administrative official; while his wife Aimee spends the long days while he is away tending to the affairs of the house. For their part, Marc & Aimee have settled well into the idyllic colonial life. They know their stay is uncertain but they have developed love and respect for the land which they live in.
This is highlighted especially through the relationships with their staff who also concede to their authority. This is until one day when a plane crash forces the family to take in a number of strangers whose own opinion in respect of the above delicate arrangement is different to say the least.
It is also worth mentioning that the relationships like many other things (as we now know) may have been undergoing a transition. France seems unaware of her place as a colonial settler; Marc respects and treats the African leaders as he would if they were French; Aimee and her girlfriends take a physical liking to Protée – all of which would be unthinkable had the story been placed only few decades earlier.
The arrival of Luc, a drifter in the plane that unexpectedly lands further accelerates this process of disorder. Luc engages in behavior that is both confrontational and provocative. He picks up on Aimee’s romantic feelings for Protée; showers in Protee’s outdoor bathroom; openly reads literature that denigrates Africans and continually challenges the status quo. Other characters too from the plane openly hurl insults at the servants and doctors much to the consternation of both Marc and Aimee.
The film does not make a reference to either a beginning nor the end of this era but any viewer who is remotely familiar with Africa’s history knows that what could follow is most likely a war and the mass flight of the settler population. The movie flashes back and forth between the past and the present. We are shown a grown up and contemplative France who has returned to Cameroon and has befriended an African, who is in a strange twist an African American who himself has returned to the land of his ancestors in an attempt to reconcile lingering feelings of attachment. Will the white African and the black African be able to see eye to eye, who is more an African? These are some of the questions being asked.