CHOCOLAT (Claire Denis, 1988)

On the list that I’m preparing of the 100 greatest films from France, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland, at least one film by Claire Denis is assured a place: Friday Night (2004). I also love Beau travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001), one of the three or four most brilliant vampire movies ever made; and who knows what Denis contributed to Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987). But Denis’s autobiographical first solo film, Chocolat, left me cold when I first saw it, and I found it sour and stultifying when I revisited it last night to give it a second chance.
     The set-up is neatly schematic, with occasional flickers of allegory: a woman named France visits post-colonial Cameroon in West Africa and flashes back to her childhood there, when her father, Marc Dalens, headed a colonial outpost. Her magnetic memory conjures a place of deep silence and great beauty, and a fortress of racism and racial tension. These involve Protée, the strapping “houseboy” who is patronized and demeaned as a matter of course. The passengers from an emergency-landed airplane flight, whom Marc and Aimée host, compound the whiteness contesting the native black. Aimée is something of a cauldron of suppressed sexual feeling towards Protée.
     Such a premise promises insight into the decadent last gasps of the West European colonial mindset,* but I at least find this film tortuously slow and facile, with an undigested touch of E. M. Forster’s 1924 A Passage to India hovering about. Mireille Perrier is strikingly ambiguous (and beautiful) as the grownup France, but the solitudinous nature of her journey, with the side attraction of her interactions with native blacks and a pair of African-American tourists, a father and young son, adds little.
     This widely admired debut does almost nothing for me.

* Of course, colonialism keeps reappearing, transmuted—for instance, currently, as globalization.

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