Postcolonialism is a contemporary sensibility, which in general terms, foregrounds elements of difference, heterogeneity and pluralism. It involves a deconstruction of ‘grand narratives’ of history, modernisation and progress, and a recognition and celebration of difference and ‘unspoken’ narratives. It emphasizes the local, the specific and difference, and the idea that no one can speak unilaterally for another.
The contemporary French film, Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988), can be seen to be somewhat informed, thematically and formally, by this broad contemporary sensibility.
Postcolonialism involves a process of reflecting, re-assembling and remembering the colonial and pre-colonial past. It provides a moment of liberation insofar as it enables the recognition of precolonial ‘culture’ and ‘language’, and a moment to reformulate identity and experience not based on Western Eurocentric discourses.
It is within this postcolonial moment of reflection, that a film such as Chocolat can be contextualised. As a white French film director, Denis explores and examines her country and its troubled history and identity from a colonial context.
The film begins in the postcolonial present before the flashback of a French woman named France commences, which becomes the bulk of the film. France reflects back to her childhood in a colonial setting and her family situation, which includes her father, Marc, a colonial administrator, her mother, Aimee, and their ‘Boy’, Protee. Through its understated style and narrative Chocolat does not attempt to make any grand statements of the colonial past. Rather, it speaks through what Adrian Martin calls a ‘melancholic postmodernism’ in which nothing is ever completely resolved or known (1) . Chocolat explores the subtle and discreet workings of power, desire, betrayal and dependency in colonial inter-relationships. The film refuses to present a reality in which characters are polarised as either good or bad, oppressor or victim; instead it dramatises colonial relations as complex, ambiguous and intricate.
The minimal exchanges between characters and their unspoken feelings of dependency, desire and intimacy is expressed throughout the film in the tableaux-like composition that dominates its style and the silent, observant and calculated regard of the camera. What is ‘spoken’ in the film between the characters is not expressed in conventional film language of narrative dialogue, action or event. Rather, Chocolat proceeds according to a lyrical rhythm, where the characters are present in their bodily movement, gesture, expression and minimal dialogue. The very nature of these mysterious and elusive characters whom the spectator must work hard to understand and know results in what Adrian Martin calls, ‘refractory characters’:
they are constituted, fragilely, in a succession of moments, moments of feeling, sensation, intellection. They are less characters, as we conventionally understand this term, than shifting configurations of mood, bodily disposition, facial expression. (2)
Through such ‘refractory characters’, Chocolat explores the very subtle workings of desire and power between people.
The presence of colonialism in Chocolat is revealed with great subtlety. Although Protee and the young France share a friendship of interdependency and understanding, it is still one subject to the defining relations of domination and subordination. This is most evident in the scene where France, sitting on a horse holding a whip, commands Protee to stop conversing with the African school teacher and leave with her immediately. The paradigm of master and slave is also most visible during those moments where France sits at the table eating while Protee stands beside her, extremely upright and ready at her command. The contradiction between the diverse facets of their relationship points to the problematic nature of colonialism, which must always construct its worldview according to the master/slave opposition.
Chocolat explores the idea that despite this opposition, feelings of desire and love will emerge that subsequently problematise relations. It is at the very moment of experiencing these feelings of desire and love, and the resulting impossibility of fulfilling that love, that the complicating and restricting presence of colonialism is most acutely made aware. The particular minimalist style of the film captures this tension of an unspoken and impossible desire that lingers between the characters Aimee and Protee in a truly fascinating way. It creates an intersubjective space and atmosphere thick with a certain mood. The desire that exists within them is revealed explicitly in the film only twice. Where nothing is spoken out loud between characters, their individual movements, gestures and expression become significant moments of revelation.
The film’s most significant and telling moments are conveyed exclusively through bodily expression and gesture. Roughly half way through the film, Luc, an extremely insensitive and provocative character, enters the Delons home. He cannot detect or recognise the precarious and subtle nature of the relations within the family space. Eventually Protee throws him out of the house. After having shut the front door, he stands there and sitting beside him in the darkness is Aimee who, overcome by her desire for Protee, reaches out and touches his leg. In a moment in which Aimee explicitly articulates her desire, hitherto only expressed indirectly and implicitly, Protee takes hold of her and forces her to stand up, in a manner which suggests that she ascend from the darkness of her immoral and impossible desires.
The feelings and emotions between characters are expressed in sudden bursts throughout the film, but always with a certain economy and control. Protee has been allocated a job outside the Delons home. While he is working close to the generator, young France enters and asks him if the main pipe is hot. He answers by placing his hand upon it. She does the same and instantly withdraws, feeling that the pipe is on the contrary extremely hot. This moment reveals Protee’s sentiments of betrayal and revenge towards his oppressors, and is conveyed solely through bodily gesture and facial expression.
Chocolat is postmodern in a melancholic sense in that nothing between the characters is ever absolutely resolved. There is rather an overwhelming sense of loss and melancholy gained from the film which explores the impossibility of love between the two characters, Aimee and Protee and even France and Protee, stuck within the colonial paradigm of master and slave. Furthermore this sense of loss and emptiness is also realised at the level of the characters themselves who appear extremely elusive and mysterious. It is also literally realised in terms of the identity of various characters such as, Munga and the adult France, who are respectively only dreaming or without a past and future.
The film’s final image of three African men standing before a wide field of grass, smoking, urinating and generally enjoying each other’s company in a carefree fashion constitutes a distinctly postcolonial moment within the film. Despite the fact that one of the men bears a striking similarity to Protee, the sequence has no connection to the narrative or thematic concerns of the entire preceding film. Rather, this image combined with the extremely jubilant soundtrack of African music points to the sequence in the film as one of Africanness. It constitutes a positive acknowledgement and recognition of difference which is not appropriated within the discourse of a stereotype in which it would figure as always already known as Other.
Chocolat is a reflection on past colonial relations perceived as moments of frustration and contradiction where sentiments of desire and betrayal are played out, rather than described in terms of blatant oppositions such as oppressor and victim. The film itself constitutes a postcolonial moment where this is at once both a reflection on colonialism and the acknowledgement and celebration of difference. This sensibility imbues the film and is evident in its quite moving thematic and formal concentration on the minute, the complex and the fragile.
© Fiona A. Villella 1995