In the decade leading up to Claire Denis’ first feature film, she worked as assistant director and first assistant director on Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire respectively. Wim Wenders style helped shape Denis’ style. Chocolat is a film that feels like a Wenders feature if it was even more subdued and quieter. The film slowly fades into being, much like the opening thirty minutes of Paris, Texas.
But make no mistake, Denis has her own indelible approach to Chocolat. She has far more trust in the audience, drawing upon basic social-political understanding to frame scenes. While the camera often lingers upon a moment, each scene feels like just a cursory glimpse into a much deeper and more complicated situation. It’s rarely what is said, but what is felt that lingers on into the next scene.
The core of the film is the relationship native African Protée (Issach De Bankolé) has with France (Cécile Ducasse), the child of a colonial administrator Protée serves. While France’s father wanders about Cameroon, solving various issues, Protée is left to take care of France and her mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi). Gradually, tensions arise, both personal and sociopolitical, that begin tearing Protée away from the family.
The core relationship between Protée and France blossoms into a father-daughter dynamic. It’s never directly stated, there’s never a standoff between Protée and the father, but Denis slowly weaves in into the fabric of their interactions. But it’s more complicated than that as France often slips away to spend time with Protée when her father is home, making it a friendship.
But on another level, Protée understands what France cannot see, the racial tension that permeates every interaction Aimée has with any African. The language barrier, the difference in education and her own struggle with being a white person in a black country slowly crack away at the fabric of the film. Small glimpse of these tensions arising at unexpected moments. Yet this is also complicated because it’s clear she knows she needs these people, not simply for basic needs, but also because they’re her only constant in life.
And while Denis kneads these fantastic little nuances into these characters, often expressed wordlessly, there’s always another layer to every character, something that is surprising or contradictory to their nature. One of the most beautiful and shocking moments of the film comes from the most unexpected and seemingly superficial character.
Denis usurps the audience’s arrogance in believing they know who these characters are. If they can exhibit such surprising spats of anger and spite or deep care and love that go against how the audience has constructed them out to be, what they’ve inferred from the development of the film’s characters, how well do they actually know these characters?
Denis recognizes that humans are far too complicated to be contained inside the singular development of a two hour films. There’s always more, something beyond simply the layer underneath the skin. Therefore, the scenes of Chocolat are not simply tiny glimpses into these character, but the entire film can only give the audience a fleeting glimpse of one person’s life, a glimpse that person is still trying to reconcile.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing