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‘Chocolat’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 14, 1989

 


Director:
Claire Dennis
Cast:
Cecile Ducasse
PG-13
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent


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Watching Claire Denis' "Chocolat," you feel as if your senses have been quickened, reawakened. The movie is like sex for the eyes -- it's ravishing in a way that goes straight into your blood.

Not a lot happens in "Chocolat," but a great deal is implied. Set mostly in the West African colony of Cameroon in the late '50s, during the final years of French control, the movie emerges out of the recollections of a young French woman who returns to Cameroon, where years ago her father worked as a district deputy. Watching the scenery flash by from a car window, France (Mireille Perrier) is drawn back into her memories of an earlier time when she rode through the countryside with her mother and father, Aime'e (Giulia Boschi) and Marc (Franc ois Cluzet), and their houseboy, Prote'e (Isaach de Bankole'). The relationship between young France (Ce'cile Ducasse) and the servant is the movie's focal point, and with the exception of the riddles the man offers to the child, their rapport is virtually wordless -- a dialogue of exchanged glances and understandings.

The director herself spent time in Africa as a child, and the images she provides have an autobiographical burnish -- they're felt images. Her most vivid memories are woven into her physical perceptions of the place, from the look and feel of things. And what she appears to have remembered most are the sexual tensions that infest nearly every action, every encounter. Most of the subliminal vibrations emanate from Prote'e, whose presence seems to have a destabilizing effect on Aime'e. But in Denis' hands, the continent itself seems to have been eroticized. There's a charge hanging in the air, in the trees.

Smooth-skinned and ebony-dark, Prote'e has the bearing of a young black god. With his classical handsomeness and powerful, lithe physique, he might be merely an idealized love object. But the prideful flare of Bankole''s nostrils signals his sense of superiority, and it's clear that Denis means to present him as a different kind of ideal -- as an icon of self-determination.

Actually, he is both, and this duality is the source of the sexual power games between mistress and servant. After Marc embarks on an expedition, leaving the two of them virtually alone, the movie becomes a solemn courtship, with neither participant sure of his role. On one occasion, Aime'e asks Prote'e to stand guard over the bed where she and her daughter sleep to protect them from a rampaging hyena. On another, she invites him into the bedroom to help lace up the back of her dress. Staring at each other in the mirror, they look like figures from mythology, with defiance, anger and longing all passing between them in an instant.

Throughout the picture, but particularly here, Denis' style owes as much to poetry and dance as it does to film. A simple physical flourish -- like the one Prote'e makes when he grabs Aime'e by the shoulders and pulls her to her feet after she strokes his leg -- is like a passage from Balanchine. It conveys a world of crosscutting implications. And, throughout, we're shown images -- a donkey carcass, a gathering of vultures, a slice of bread covered with ants -- that pull us deeper into the unconscious level where the movie works best.

Whenever Denis resorts to a more conventional narrative, her touch is less assured. The more explicit she becomes, the less she reveals. The scenes featuring a group of travelers who move into the compound after their plane is forced to land carry us into territory overfamiliar from other stories about ruling colonials in foreign lands.

When another visitor (Jean-Claude Adelin), an ex-seminarian on a walking tour across the continent, takes up residence, he begins to distort the rigid lines of conduct and protocol between the two classes -- working with the black laborers and showering in their shower -- and disrupts the delicate racial and political balance. But practically everything we learn in these scenes has been communicated earlier, through the languorous editing rhythms and the texture of Robert Alazraki's cinematography.

I loved the way Denis draws her camera across the African landscape in order to make the countryside itself a character in the drama. In one scene, the whites go in search of a doctor for a guest suffering an epileptic seizure, and the shot in which a crowd of blacks emerges sheepishly from a church into the high-beamed glare of car headlights tells us everything we need to know about the coming revolts.

With "Chocolat," Denis makes her debut as a director, and she has designed the film so that politics and sex resonate off one another; the movie is never about simply one idea or the other. In some peculiar, not entirely explicable way, the movie is a kind of mystery, with France returning to Cameroon as if to the scene of some primal crime. The erotic tension between Aime'e and Prote'e is the hidden catalyst that exposes the corruption in the arrangement between the races. Sex isn't the crime, it's the secret that exposes it.

Denis is a true filmmaker, and she may have the makings of a great one. Already, she has a sure, singular voice and a supple, evocative technique. She teaches you to think through your eyes. Throughout the film, it's as if the camera were asking, what happened here? And an accurate answer would be, both something very meaningful and nothing at all. As a grown-up woman, France seems haunted by Prote'e, and her return seems almost like an attempt to exorcise him and reclaim herself. The black American who gives her a ride tells her to get out of Africa fast before she's gobbled up, but his advice comes too late. The continent has already seduced her.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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