There are few directors as distinctive as Claire Denis. She can compose the most subtlety exquisite images, can communicate without excessive dialogue and is fearless in tackling provocative subject matters. It’s these factors that make her one of the most respected filmmakers of her generation. Early in her career, she worked as an assistant director for Wim Wenders, Jacques Rivette and Jim Jarmusch, before making her eventual directorial debut in 1988 with the understated Chocolat; a semi-autographical film inspired by her experiences as a child living in colonial West Africa.
The story is told primarily through one long, extended flashback, beginning with the adult France Dalens (Mireille Perrier), travelling across Cameroon and reminiscing about her childhood years living in the country whilst under French colonial rule. The young France, now seen as a little girl played by Cécile Ducasse, is the daughter of Marc (François Cluzet), a noble district officer, and Aimée (Giulia Boschi), a beautiful, young housewife. She has no siblings, no real friends, but she does share a close but complicated relationship with Protée (Isaach de Bankolé), the family houseboy. At times you can almost imagine them to be brother and sister, they play and act like so, but the racial and social dynamics are obvious; we know this friendship cannot last.
Protée is tall, handsome and physically imposing. After France’s father leaves for government duty, it is him that becomes the protective figure for the household. One night he is even invited to spend the night in Aimée’s bedroom, to protect them from hyenas that can be heard outside. This incident prompts a gradual sexual tension to develop between the houseboy and Aimée. The attraction is clear and palpable, but of course nothing can be acted upon. The idea is too taboo to even be admitted.
The ensuing drama is wrought with a quiet tension – as Aimée and Protée continue to exchange momentary glances, their feelings become more and more difficult to ignore. Like with many of Denis’s pictures, themes of race, gender and politics are all delicately explored here. She has no use for fireworks, no need for histrionics. She just lets the story speak for itself, not necessarily through words, but through simple gestures and body language. Beau Trevail has long been considered to be Denis’s masterpiece, and perhaps rightly so, but Chocolat is an extraordinarily astute first feature that deserves attention.