Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 7 
9 June

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Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988)FRANCE
Lost in fields of interracial desire
Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988)

Through a close examination of the film's cinematography and mise-en-scène, Hilary Neroni reveals how, in Chocolat, desire is structured "not on the level of the verbal but instead in the field of the visible, which is where the characters' unspoken longings are played out."

Hiding in the field of the visible

Claire Denis' Chocolat (France/West Germany/Cameroon, 1988) begins with France Dalens (Mireille Perrier), a white French woman in her late twenties, returning to Cameroon to revisit her childhood home. On her way, she stops to enjoy an unpopulated beach and ends up obtaining a ride into the city from the only other people on the beach, William "Mungo" Park (Emmet Judson Williamson) and his son. Mungo assumes that France is a French tourist who is "slumming" her way through Africa, but as France stares out the window, the film takes us back to when she was a little girl growing up in a colonial outpost in Cameroon, where her father was a captain in the French army. The rest of the film depicts a particular moment in her childhood that seems to best capture the interracial tensions and conflicts from that time.

The majority of the film relies on the visual rather than the verbal to explain the stresses that exist between France's family, the servants and the family guests. Thus, it falls to the mise-en-scène and the camera placement to clue the audience into what the characters themselves dare not articulate. Not surprisingly, this visual commentary also clues us into larger metaphoric meanings regarding Cameroon, France, colonialism and the politics of desire. Chocolat suggests that we structure desire not on the level of the verbal but instead in the field of the visible, which is where the characters' unspoken longings are played out. In this sense, cinema becomes the privileged vehicle for the representation of colonial power because it can show how the field of the visible articulates power relations and relations of desire—and, of course, their intermingled nature.

A desire born out of Colonialism

To begin making this point, Denis and her director of photography Agnès Godard create a stunningly beautiful yet isolated portrait of Cameroon. The remote outpost where France's family lives is vast and unpopulated. By placing the story in such an exquisite but lonely area, Denis can concentrate on the intimate relationships existing between a mere handful of characters. Just as these characters are trapped in their remote surroundings, they are also trapped in their roles as wife, servant, child, colonialist and so on. Denis works to highlight this by mapping out the house in terms of racial spaces, which are also demarcated as public or private ones.

The servants are all black Africans, and where they eat, shower, etc, are all public spaces, while the white family's home (especially the bedroom and bathroom) are depicted as private spaces. The public spaces seem constantly on display. Several scenes in particular highlight this and in the process reveal the intensity of the relationship between France's mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi), a French woman in her twenties, and Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), their Cameroon servant of about the same age. For while the flashback does depict the experience of France as a young girl (Cécile Ducasse), Aimée and Protée's relationship is what drives the plot and what shapes France as a young girl and later as an adult.[1]

The scenes between Aimée and Protée are often intensely personal, though staged in a completely public space. For example, in one particular scene, Protée is taking a shower. However, the shower for the male servants is outside—in plain view of the house. Denis sets this scene during the day when the colours are rich and the sun is high. We see a medium long shot of Protée soaping himself and then rinsing. Protée and the servants' quarters are in the foreground of the frame, and the big house is in the background. As he is showering, the audience is aware that Aimée and France are returning from a walk. As they reach the porch of the house, Protée also catches sight of them, which means that they can see him as well. Upon seeing them, he leans back and stifles a cry as he smashes his elbow against the wall behind him. While not one word is spoken throughout this entire scene, Denis reveals that the very layout of the colonial house with the servants on display is charged with desire. The servants' quarters become a visual field that the colonialist surveys. But this field is also charged with sexual yearning.

The cental question posed by Chocolat is whether two people on opposite sides of these fields desire each other with a desire that is not born out of colonialism. Or is desire, in this environment, always informed by colonialism? As indicated above, Denis presents this question by articulating the sexual and power relations on the level of the visual.[2] It is clear that Aimée and Protée want each other (though they never speak these feelings), but what is not clear—presumably neither to the audience nor to the characters themselves—is whether such feelings are manufactured and exploited by colonialism, or whether it is possible for their desire to stand outside of colonial power relations. Protée is clearly humiliated by having to be literally on display for Aimée, but at the same time it is only through her gaze that he can discern the nature of her desire for him.

Importantly, this scene contrasts with another shower scene. Later in the film, Aimée decides that she needs a shower and orders Protée to fix her one. The rest of the scene takes place outside, where we see Protée rigging up the shower, which emanates from a barrel that is placed outside the house. Here again, Denis shoots the scene in a medium long shot in which we see the corner of the house, the barrel and some of the surrounding landscape. What we cannot see, however, because she has a privacy in the bathroom that extends even to the camera's eye, is Aimée taking a shower. Instead, we see only the dirty bathwater that swirls out of the bottom of the house while she is bathing. At the sight of this water, Protée kicks the buckets he'd brought the water in and walks away. In this way, Aimée's privacy is sexualised through the emptying bathwater, on display for Protée. Ultimately then, even the film's supposedly private moments happen under someone else's gaze.

Staging a racialised gaze

This is a point that Denis emphasises throughout Chocolat. The majority of her shots are not simply descriptive or omniscient views; rather, each moment seems to be staged specifically for the gaze of one of the characters. The introduction of a young white Frenchman works to highlight this filmic trope. Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin) shows up with one of the French families who arrive to help the Dalens dig a runway for a flyer whose airplane made an emergency landing in their remote part of Cameroon. Luc eventually leaves the French family he was traveling with and comes to stay with the Dalens. He seems more progressive than the other white Frenchmen because he makes an attempt to integrate into the African community as much as the French community. I would argue, however, that Denis makes it clear that Luc is also using both communities to his own advantage. Luc is in no way a hero in this situation; instead he acts more like a mirror for the actual fields of power and desire that exist between the groups.

Luc integrates into the African community by literally inhabiting their public spaces. For example, the Dalens first see Luc standing in the back of a truck with all the other African workers who have come to dig the runway. His white face sticks out amongst the rest of the workers, and the family is clearly fascinated with this white man who so easily inhabits this non-white space. Thus, right from the beginning Luc's allure is defined by his inserting himself into an African space.[3] Luc's very presence amongst the workers also reminds everyone that normally their spaces are quite separate. Denis articulates all of this by first mapping out these racially separate spaces and then staging conflicts or tensions within them.[4]

Another important example of this strategy is again staged at the outside shower. Walking back to the house, Protée comes upon Luc bathing in the worker's outdoor shower. Luc seems to be fully enjoying the shower in a sensual way, as if—even with no one around—he is enjoying the fact that he is showering in a public space that he is not expected to be in, a colonial space within which tension and desire inevitably lie. Protée is outraged and chastises him for showering there. Denis shoots this from the same medium long shot that she originally shot Protée's showering scene. Once again, Aimée and France appear in the background walking back into the house. Luc sees the pair and calls to them, which makes them turn and look in his direction, thus viewing him fully naked. In this way, he forces both Protée and Aimée to look at him as he inhabits the fields of desire that they had been mapping out, thus making these visual fields obvious.

The only scene in which this tension is even slightly articulated verbally takes place one evening when Aimée comes out on the porch to discover Luc eating with the servants. The contrast to the Dalen family's dining arrangements is obvious. The family dines inside at a table with all the accoutrements that define French "civilisation." Meanwhile, the servants eat outside in front of the house, sitting on the ground around a fire. Luc calls out to Aimée and says that he has decided he will no longer eat with the family inside. Furthermore, he claims that what Aimée really wants is to be sitting outside with the servants next to Protée. In other words, he hints at the sexual tension that exists between Protée and Aimée.

While Luc's words seem to draw attention to the fields of desire that exist around this house, it is the mise-en-scène that really calls attention to these visual fields of power and desire. The scene is set up through a shot/reverse shot that goes back and forth between Aimée on the porch and the reverse shot of Luc sitting on the ground amongst the workers. Aimée is standing towards the back of the porch, somewhat in the dimness of the house. Denis here highlights the fact that Aimée is separated and alone, with the expanse of the porch surrounding her.

The reverse shot of Luc, Protée and the others is a tighter one, emphasising the group warmly lit by the fire. Even still, it is clear that Luc does not belong in this space, and that he has literally inserted himself into it for a reason. Luc engages in this activity in order to seduce Aimée, but in doing so he throws both Protée and Aimée's roles into question by making these fields of desire public. In other words, his action reveals and critiques the fields of desire that exist in and around this colonial house, and suggests that the real manifestation of Protée and Aimée's desire is in the field of the visible, which is intimately tied to representations of colonial power.

Luc's intrusion into these fields of desire leads to a scene in which Aimée tries to reach out physically to Protée. This scene is staged in the dark shadows of the house when Protée is closing up the windows and doors. Fully invested in this play of desire, but all too aware of the way this desire has been shaped by these spaces of colonial power, Protée rejects her. As is common throughout the film, this entire scene takes place without one word of dialogue. Soon afterwards, Aimée asks her husband to remove Protée from house duties, and the film returns from the flashback to the modern day framing story of the adult France's journey back to her childhood home.

Defining the battle lines

Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988)The film ends with an exchange between Mungo and France that neatly and yet ambiguously sums up many of the formal and content-driven themes of the film. Before they part, Mungo asks to see France's hands so that he can read her palms. One palm, however, is covered with burn scars (burns which the audience saw occurring just at the end of the flashback, a kind of last painful pact between the young France and Protée). Mungo remarks that he'd never met anyone with no life lines on their hands, "someone with no past and no future." It is especially difficult to overlook here that he is speaking to someone whose name is "France"—thus possibly suggesting that France itself has no past and no future when it comes to Africa.

It is at this remark that France finally seems to warm to Mungo and asks if he would like to have a drink with her. He declines, however, following the pattern established in the flashback. In other words, interracial relationships (even between Mungo, an African American living permanently in Cameroon, and France) are overdetermined by the fields of power and desire that colonialism set up in Africa. Thus Chocolat ends, suggesting that not much has changed in Cameroon. Denis' insistence on confronting these fields of desire and attempting to define and investigate them through cinema, however, seems to suggest that it is within these very visual fields that the battle against colonialism and racial inequities must be fought.

Hilary Neroni

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Also of interest
About the author

Hilary Neroni is a professor of Film Studies at the University of Vermont.

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1. France's father, Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), is a captain in the French colonial army and is often away dealing with business and governing the area.return to text

2. By framing the story with France as an adult searching for her childhood home, Denis also suggests the question of legacy. In other words, do these fields of desire remain charged with colonial power even decades after that power has left?.return to text

3. Luc's cavalier attitude also belittles the misfortunate of the African workers. That is to say, they are all brought to this area and treated less civilly (made to ride standing up in the back of a pickup truck) than the white French families (who rode inside their own truck), who don't help dig the runway. It's important to note that Luc, while he shows up with a shovel as if he is a worker, never does help dig the runway, and instead sits around with the white families.return to text

4. The spaces in the house that are clearly mixed racially, like the kitchen and the dining room are seemingly filled with tension at all times. The kitchen is meant to be governed by Aimée but run by an African cook. Further emphasizing the impossibility of their alliance, Denis makes the cook an English speaking cook so that Aimée literally can't even communicate properly with the cook, which occasions even more strife than there already is. The dining room, while inside the house, is a place where Protée serves the family and is often the site of tension between Aimée and Protée because their power relation is so clear and yet so uncomfortable for them both in that dining room setting.return to text

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