Even in her debut film, you could imagine that only a director like Claire Denis could get away with naming perhaps the most important character in her film France, particularly when that character is the young daughter of a regional administrator for the French government, Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), who has settled in the north of Cameroon with his wife Aimée (Giulia Boschi), the family’s needs on their estate looked after by a team of native servants. Although France (Cécile Ducasse) remains very much a passive observer to the relations between her family and the people of the country they are effectively running, her perspective moreover being one reflected upon from an older France (Mireille Perrier) who has returned to the now independent country in which she grew up, it’s this perspective that is decisive in how Denis treats the subject, and the reason why she can get away with what seems like heavy-handed symbolism. Quite simply, it’s a film that is about much more than colonial attitudes and behaviour of the French in an African nation.
Chocolat rather is about memory and impressions – formative impressions certainly – about relationships on a deeper a level that between black and white, between men and women, between fathers and daughters, one that takes in age, class and cultural differences and the roles of master and servant. Even within these categories however, Denis is far from conventional in how she looks at these subjects, the difference in age for example being as much within the single character of France and how this affects her outlook on the past, and the idea of master and servant being taken to the level of having control over one’s impulses or being a slave to one’s desires or inhibitions. Most evidently, the means by which Denis avoids making a superficial conventional depiction of regular subjects is through the beautiful photographic framing of Agnès Godard, who succeeds in capturing the experience of this period indeed as if it were a reflection of memory, finding its essence in sensual details, in impressionistic harmonies of colour, in light and shadow, in skin tones and textures and in the contrasts between them.
Taking in all this then, Chocolat does in fact deal with colonial attitudes – clearly not from a confrontational head-on angle, but from the point of view of the complete human experience. Little seems to happen and much seems to remains simmering beneath the surface, particularly in the complex relationship at the centre of the film between France’s mother Aimée and their houseboy Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), which on its own takes in much of those questions of mastery and submission, on the playing of roles, on the suppression of one’s true nature, of desires and deeper anger, of self-hatred and defiance. In Protée there may even be a growing resentment, which can be seen by some as arrogance, a combination of factors that forms an attitude suggestive of a nation getting ready to assert it own will and independence. These underlying tensions are brought out further by the arrival of outsiders to the plantation house, other settlers and some businessmen whose plane has been grounded with a broken propeller. Again, there are few confrontational moments of a serious nature, rather it’s in the casual disregard for the native people, the treatment of them as possessions to abuse and take out their own frustrations and lusts on that seems most shocking to the viewer looking back at it from a distance and as a child through the uncomprehending eyes of France.
There is clearly then a wider social and political point to all this, but it is contained here, as it must be, within the human dimensions of the relationship between Aimée and Protée, and also evidently within the character of France, growing up in a foreign land, having a closer relationship with Protée than her own father, and having been “burnt” by the experience. We have become accustomed to this being the case with Claire Denis’s work in her subsequent films, much as we have become accustomed to the brilliance of the work of her cinematographer Agnès Godard, but the impact of what is achieved here in their debut film working together is no less impressive.
Chocolat is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The disc is region-free.
The transfer for the film would seem to be derived from the source of the French MK2 edition, which means that the film looks good, but on a transfer that was clearly made a number of years ago, it doesn’t quite meet the standards expected today. There is a faint flicker of compression artefacts in the grain patterns, some minor discolouration, cross-colouration and a certain resultant softness to the image. Elsewhere the transfer is essentially fine, with strong colouration and tones and decent black levels. It’s transferred anamorphically at the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and progressively encoded. The tone is slightly yellowish – something that has been noted on MK2 transfers of this vintage used by Artificial Eye, notably on Kieslowski and Kusturica titles – but the warmth seems to suit the film.
The tone is however noticeably different from the old MGM Region 1 release of the film. It’s also 1.66:1, but non-anamorphic, and although on a single layer disc, there appear to be less issues with the image flickering. The colour tones would also appear to be more accurate and natural, or maybe just more blue-ish. Screencaptures below show Artificial Eye R0 first, MGM Region 1 second.
The audio track is the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, which is clear, has good ambience and separation.
English subtitles are optional and in a white font.
The only real extra feature is the original Trailer (1:32) for the film, which isn’t of great clarity, but it’s a good trailer of overlapping and superimposed scenes which captures the mood of the film well. Other trailers are included for the Artificial Eye releases of The Wind Will Carry Us and the forthcoming Claire Dolan
Rather than focussing directly on the subject of the French colonial presence in Cameroon, Claire Denis’s debut feature Chocolat approaches the subject from an unusual angle, from a reflection on the past and from the point of view of a young girl, focussing rather the complexities of human nature and relationships that underlie and direct behaviour – a subject and a method that would certainly be developed much further in her subsequent films. As a debut feature and for the subject that is dealt with, Chocolat remains all the more powerful for this approach and, although it could do with a new HD-sourced transfer, the film nevertheless holds up reasonably well on Artificial Eye’s DVD release.