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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 14, 1989


Claire Dennis
Cecile Ducasse
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Chocolat," Claire Denis' surrealistic return to her postwar childhood in Cameroon, may not uncover a comfortably structured story, but it conjures up its own peculiar, affecting sense of myth.

In her first feature, shot on location in West Africa with little money or equipment, Denis (who has worked closely with offbeat talents Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch) shows a sure instinct for the kind of open-ended mysteries that make great movies.

Suffused with sunlit, sensual images, "Chocolat" feels rather than finds out, implies rather than blurts out. Like an odd collection of old-time photographs, it seems to hold enigmatic truths -- ones that can't be expressed but that you have an instinctive understanding for nonetheless.

France Dalens (Mireille Perrier), a young woman traveling through Cameroon, recalls her much younger days when her father (Franc ois Cluzet) was a district officer and she developed a deep friendship with the houseboy, Prote'e (Isaach de Bankole'). Denis (co-scripting with Jean-Pol Fargeau) takes you back to when (while Papa's away on business and colonial wayfarers come and go) young France (Ce'cille Ducasse) and her mother Aime'e (Giulia Boschi) discover different qualities in the nobly elusive manservant.

Aime'e, initially resentful of Prote'e's deadpan efficiency, fights an eerie, sexual attraction to him. But France finds in Prote'e a delicate, fraternal bond. He gives her crushed ants on bread to eat, she feeds him from her dinner plate and, in a beautiful night-sky scene, he carries her on his shoulders into the African night, talking out loud to scare away predators.

As Prote'e, de Bankole' (a performer from the Ivory Coast) gives "Chocolat" its hypnotic soul. He seems menacing and innocent, proud and humble, all at the same time, as he tenderly watches over France, slips out of the sticky sexual situation with his dignity intact and knocks a pushy French racist on his derrie`re.

The performances are uniformly strong, including those from Ducasse and Boschi, and more minor offerings from Donatus Ngala as an amusing house chef, Enoch, who is constantly fending off complaints about his British-style cooking, and Jacques Denis as a Mr. Magoo-faced coffee planter who talks coffee late into the night and travels around with an African concubine.

Denis builds up her movie with such small moments and performances, as well as with moods you want to savor -- the lazy haze of afternoon, the romantic allure of evening. And though she may end with a cynical conclusion about cultural divisions, she also leaves you with enough images and (purposely) unexplained mysteries to last you long after you've left the theater.

CHOCOLAT (PG-13) — In French with subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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