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Chocolat: An Interview with Claire Denis

June 11, 2011

conducted by Marie Craven and Raffaele Caputo

Chocolat (1988) is the feature debut of French director Claire Denis and the interview that follows was conducted in 1989 for the film’s Australian release. Originally intended for publication in Cinema Papers, the interview remained unpublished until now.

Chocolat lends weight to a simple and familiar notion: the deeper one delves into individual experience, the more one finds politics. It is a film in which political conditions are revealed with startling clarity in minimal exchanges between characters; in which rigidly defined social positions are not merely structural, but are felt organically, permeating everything in private and public life.

With a plot exquisitely staged in miniature scale, the film is set for the most part around one small settlement in French-colonized Africa in the 1950s. The drama centres on the relations of four primary characters: Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), and officer of the French administration; Aimée (Giúlia Boschi), his beautiful, tormented wife; his daughter France (Cécilia Ducasse), a European child who has known no life outside of Africa; and a proud, young African man, Protée (Isaac de Bankolé), who is the family’s chief servant. With a bare minimum of dialogue, the characters convey extraordinary psychological detail while also suggesting more general social types. Their personal power-plays give body to the film’s evocation of three political relations: European culture and African culture; man and woman; adult and child.

There are obvious connections between Chocolat and other films dealing with racial politics in Africa, such as A World Apart (Chris Menges, 1988) and Mapantsula (Oliver Schmitz, 1988). With Mapantsula, the film shares a powerful figure of an African man’s struggling to maintain his identity and dignity within terribly oppressive conditions. In each case, there is an avoidance of common liberal stereotypes of the noble oppressed. Chocolat’s Protée certainly maintains a princely quality within his subjugation, but his pride is shown naked, as a painful compensation for his humiliating position. Like A World Apart, Chocolat has its base in autobiography and is seen from a little girl’s point of view. Considerable attention is paid in both films to the relationship between mother and daughter, placing an unusual emphasis on the place of white women within racial politics. But of all of the points of intersection between these films, the most vital to understanding Chocolat is the fascination with entwining personal and political experience.

Witness, for example, an exchange between Protée and France. Protée has been banished from the house after rejecting, in one silent and brutal gesture, the advances of Aimée. From a half-lit corner of the shed where he now works, France watches him, France watches him. There is an unspoken intimacy that they often share. With a child’s curiosity, she points to a pipe running from the side of the generator and asks if it is hot. Protée takes hold of the pipe with his hand, indicating that it is not. While he maintains his grip, France reaches out and touches the pipe, but recoils instantly as her flesh touches the searing metal. She looks up at Protée in astonishment as he first examines the festering wound in his own palm and then wanders out into the night, leaving her alone.

True to the film’s style, hardly a word is spoken in this poignant and savage scene, yet the characters’ tortured interplay is perfectly clear. There is between them a palpable bond, shared experience, even love and compassion; there is also white-hot rage, immune to all pain in the pleasure of betrayal. For Protée, it is a small triumph, a backlash against the least powerful, most innocent of the oppressors; for France, it is the point at which her isolation, her cultural homelessness, is most painfully focused. The film allows no romance here about the riches of hybrid cultures; the portrait of racial domination is one of profound alienation.

The metaphor of sight—to watch or to be watched—and the states of action and immobility are very significant throughout the film, serving as graphic indicators of the relative power of the various characters. Protée and France are intense observers. They are able to see situations clearly but, having social positions of least power, cannot act, have no effect. Aimée, ostensibly powerful through her relation to her husband, is really entrapped, watched from all sides as she moves restlessly around the domestic confines of the house and garden like a moth around a light. She is given space for a clear view neither of her own predicament nor of any of the others so close to her. Marc, both colonial father and eternal boy, embarks on obscure expeditions as he pleases, willfully sacrificing the clarity of his perceptions to his dreams along the way. He has the free, romantic soul of an adventurer, innocent and irresponsible. Oblivious to the effects of the invasive social order he represents, even to its painful effects on his own family, he personifies a ruling culture naïvely ignorant of the impossibility of its project and of its inevitable failure.

The moral decay of the displaced European culture becomes more sharply apparent when a plane crash-lands in the desert near the settlement, introducing a handful of visitors who upset the very precarious balance that has been established. The pilot is an alcoholic, an adventurer who has lost his spirit; he can find momentary peace only in flight. Among the passengers is Delpich (Jacques Denis), a bigoted loud-mouth prone to singing maudlin songs. He keeps an African mistress hidden from view, a silent ‘little chickadee’ from whom he steals scraps of food. Machinard (Laurent Arnal) and his wife Mirielle (Emmanuelle Chaulet) are nervous, insecure French, unable to adapt their pristine manners in any way. Confronted with an alien culture, a culture they have been sent to dominate, their only response is to shrink away and refuse contact.

But of all the European characters, the ugliest and most perverse is Luc Segaln (Jean-Claude Adelin). At first he appears as a saintly ascetic, one who has eschewed a culturally superior position, identifying himself with the African workers. Yet his humility contains a sneer. He ostentatiously enacts the role of outsider, a position that cannot exist, that can be adopted only with hypocrisy. In his misanthropy, political conviction becomes a weapon that maintains his sense of superiority against both Africans and Europeans alike. With the superior vision of hindsight, the political position assumed by Luc is one that the film itself could have easily leaned towards. The contempt with which the film portrays this character inversely suggests its deepest sympathies. There is a concern more with humanity than ideology; politics is of interest only in its direct relation to the lives of individuals.

Even though the particular historical place of the film is Cameroon, it is tempting to seek contemporary relevance by drawing parallels with the situation in South Africa. But, in Chocolat, history has its own relevance embedded deeply in contemporary life. In the film’s final sequence, when it returns to the post-colonial present, the legacy of the past becomes piercingly obvious. France, now grown and wandering aimlessly around the country of her origin, still has the scars of her childhood. The lifelines on her palm are gone, burnt away long ago; she has “no past, no future”. Her African traveling companion, first introduced at the start of the film, is revealed as an African man, also disillusioned by his attempt to re-find his roots; “Here I am only dreaming”, he says.

Stylistically, Denis is concerned less with flurries of detail than with primal forms, crystalline essences, apparently irreducible abstractions. The shots are calm, patient, deliberate and relentlessly long in duration. There is a sustained poetic intensity, a meditative quality, about the film that suggests a connection with other French purists such as Robert Bresson or Eric Rohmer. Yet in Chocolat there is also great warmth and sensuality, surprising in a film of such rigour, and an organic unity of formal elements that is almost euphoric. The slow, utterly graceful movements of Isaac de Bankolé as Protée, for example, seem intimately related to the visual rhythms of the landscape, which are, in turn, sensitively mirrored in the compositions of the camera. The delicacy and poise is at times quite breathtaking. The fragility of this formal balance finds it perfect metaphor in small detail of the film. Each night, beneath the vague noises of the desert, a pulsing hum can be heard, barely noticeable yet insistent: it is the generator fighting at the outer edge of the settlement to sustain the light. This incidental sound is a distillation of all the pathos and fragility of the displaced European culture, the absurdity of the attempt to dominate this vast and unyielding terrain. When the battle is abandoned each night, the darkness seems to amplify both the disturbing sounds of the desert and the emotional echoes of the restless lives contained in this place. The echoes of unfulfilled desire remain too after the last frame of the film. Chocolat is, finally, not a love story, but rather a story of love in exile and of lives made impossible by the cool, quiet brutalities of power. MC

* * * * * *

How difficult was it to get Chocolat into production?

Because it was my first film, it was not easy. I started without a production company and had to put up some of the finance myself. After I had written the script with the co-scenarist [Jean-Pol Fargeau], I did some location scouting in Africa. Then, I made contact with the Cameroon authorities to get a permit to shoot, because there were some locations I liked and wanted to film in. The French government then gave me a grant and I started looking for a production team, Little by little I found a first-time producer, and then two television channels that were interested.

Overall, there was a year of difficulties because people who had said “yes” before were then saying “no”. I think they were afraid of a film being totally shot in Africa.

Can you explain further why you think they were afraid?

Because it is difficult to control the financing and production of a film when you have a crew working in a country with no telephones, and where you cannot check the dailies because there are no facilities. These sorts of things frighten people.

Also people were nervous because I was a first-time director and because they thought I would not be able to stand the climate and the weather. But I am very confident. I knew I would find the actors in Africa, that I would find the little girl in Cameroon, and also the plane. Many of the people involved in the production thought that we would have to bring everything in from France. But I knew that it was possible to make Chocolat on a low budget. Just the same, it was difficult convincing people to take the chance. I wrote the script in 1985 and started shooting in 1987.

What was Jean-Pol Fargeau’s input in the script? Did he have a similar experience as you, growing up in Africa?

Jean-Pol is a friend of mine. He is not a scriptwriter but playwright, and, no he was never in Africa. I took him there later. I like the idea of working collaboratively even when it’s your original idea. I want someone to talk to, and that is the case even with my next film. It’s great working with someone else.

Most of the performances are fairly restrained, in fact, quite minimal. Yet Chocolat deals with obvious tensions and frustrations, and quite strong passions. How did you prepare the actors for achieving such restraint but at the same time conveying a sense of powerful feelings and emotions?

I think we were helped a lot by the fact that we were in Cameroon without a telephone and without even seeing the dailies, and always very much together in a small town. A lot of people in the crew were from Cameroon, including the first assistant director, and this helped because they were also children of the era of colonization. They knew and could feel the story, which I think greatly influenced the actors.

How important to you is the autobiographical element of the film?

That is an enormously varied and difficult question to answer. The children of people who worked in Africa before independence—and sometimes even after—share a common secret and a common experience of childhood, stories like that of the plane crash, or the relationship with the African boy, were very ordinary experiences. But I was surprised when the film was released in France to have received so many letters in which people would say, “I recognize my house and the furniture.” But the truth is that we built that house and the furniture because there are no longer houses like that in Cameroon … they all have air-conditioning now! We built everything, even the table. And yet I received letters like, “I recognize the cook”, “It was my house you used”, “I was there in ’57”, and I remember one woman wrote, “I was in love with the boy but I never dared to tell him.”

Being a child, you probably have two kinds of memory: there is your own, and then there is a collective memory, which you catch or develop at school, in your community and so on. For instance, I know people who were in Algeria before independence and when they get together they all tell the same stories. I think it’s the same for those people who were in Africa and so I would say that the film is both autobiographical and common to many people.

One of the things Chocolat is clearly about is racial division. There is also division expressed in sexual and gender terms. It is apparent that the way the women experience Africa is certainly different from the way the men experience it.

Yes, though that would be less clear today. In the 1950s, it was outside the norms of society, but still openly admitted that [white] men would have affairs with black women. Some even spent their whole life in Africa with a black woman, never telling the wife in France. On the other hand the wife of a French official had to fight against two kinds of taboo. One of those would, of course, would be racist, which was a very real barrier. It was impossible for a white woman to have a clear concept of such matters unless it was a political concept, but then is not the woman of my film.

Then there was also the fact that these women had nothing to do because they were given nothing to do. They only thing they could do were to dig holes in this dry ground to grow a few vegetables as a hobby. At the start of the film, Aimée has a garden and it is just for fun. She does no cooking, she does no cleaning, and so the second taboo would be that between a mistress and a servant, which is not a cliché for a woman of the 1950s.

That’s interesting because Chocolat tends to bring Aimeé down to the level of France, the child. There is that scene where Protée fights with Luc and then when he comes back into the house, Aimeé is crouched on the floor and she touches him. It is an ambiguous moment because at first it is as if France were on the floor, yet one only realizes it is Amieé when Protée pulls her up …

I didn’t really consider the scene like that but I understand what you mean; I think it’s a very correct analysis because there was something really very childish in the way a woman like Aimée reacted to her life.

She was told to wait and to be charming to people who came to the house, but she had no responsibility of any kind. She would grab at anything sexual but not in a very adult way; and not only in terms of sexuality was she not very adult, also in terms of politics. She is like all the rest of the white people in the film who are hiding their heads in the sand. I would think that some of the images of the grown-ups in the film make them look like children.

The film is in many ways also about the total failure of colonization. What, therefore, is the relevance of a film set back in the 1950s to today? Is it, for example, related to the South African situation?

The experience of the West Coast of African, or the so-called Central Africa, has nothing really to do with South Africa. Because of the different [European] countries that invaded different parts of Africa, Africa is a country in many pieces. Chocolat has no connection with South Africa, although it touches on the South African experience because of the musician Abdullah Ibrahim.[1] The film has shown in Capetown but I think that has much more to do with Abdullah than anything else.

A World Apart also deals with a child in relation to her mother but it is set in South Africa. Have you seen that film and do you think it relates to yours?

I think it relates to my film only in a small way, insofar as it deals with a little girl’s point of view. But it is mostly dealing with white people who are adult in their lives and who have made the right decision about apartheid. Besides, it is set much later and the story takes place 15 years after independence. Those 15 years make a big difference in the history of South Africa. My film is set in the 1950s, a period before the independence of most of the regions that were ruled by European countries.

Africa as a continent and South Africa as a country, even now have little relation. I don’t mean that as a criticism but as a political fact. Each part of Africa has to fight its own fight. How can a black man working everyday in Cameroon understand that a man in South Africa suffers more than he? South Africa is emblematic and very important to the entire world, but it cannot be a model for every black man.

The film concerns not knowing certain things or the deliberate exclusion from particular experiences. Marc understands this, as does France as an adult, but the riddle playing between Protée and the young France tends to act like a ritual of inclusion.

I’ll give you a very naïve answer: those kinds of riddles are well known in Africa and many of the countries have them, even Madagascar. A very famous one, for example, is “a tail of a horse coming from a roof”, which is the image of smoke as a wife is cooking inside the home. Servants would often tell a child riddles because, in a way, it was a very easy way to communicate. The culture was not mysterious; it was there and everything was open. Which really means that nobody was very much interested, after all.

That’s interesting what you say because Chocolat has little dialogue and some of it is in riddles and some of the characters also speak in analogies, which is like a private language.

It also has something to do with respect. A servant is an adult but he is treated like a child. In a way he is equal to a child, but not to a white child. It is a different kind of equality and so there is this mixture of shyness and resentment that makes communication possible between them by way of curiosity. It is never easy and simple!

Luc is a fascinating character because on the one hand he tends to speak the ‘truth’ behind the social façade, especially about Protée wanting Amiée but not daring to cross boundaries. Yet Luc is a colonist in the worst sense.

Yes, he’s the worst of the lot. He is a man who uses ideas about freedom for countries like Cameroon that were already clearly visible elsewhere in the world. He is using everything, Christian ideas and political ideas, to make a little mixture that he can arrange only for himself, his own benefit. You often met those kinds of men at that time. They disappeared after Independence because they were very much dependent of the colonist system. Maybe ten years later, their ‘younger brothers’ went back to Africa under other labels, and they looked to help ‘this or that’ but they were a little like vampires.

You have worked with many famous directors, including Wim Wenders and Jacques Rivette. Have any directors had an effect on your style?

Let’s say I feel very lucky to have worked with them and I learnt a lot from them. But it is difficult for me now to find out where certain influences have come from. Perhaps there is something common between them and myself, which is a way of belonging to the same family of directors who are very free with what they do. They are not trying to make films according to a certain demand. They design their films in a very free way, sometimes with great difficulty in terms of money, but still they are free even though we are different types of directors.

To stay on the question of style, there is little camera movement in Chocolat. Apparently, you wanted to shoot the film as though you were taking still photographs. What did you want to achieve with that approach?

What I had in mind with Mireille Perrier [the adult France] at the opening and at the end of the film was to do it in a style more like documentary. The past, because it is the past and will never be again, would like images as in photographs. I always wanted to convey the feeling of “this isn’t anymore!” One of the possibilities for conveying that feeling in images was to use a 54mm lens for most of the time, which always places human beings and the landscape in a good relationship with one another, and at a certain distance from the camera. It gives the feeling that these people were small in this vast land, and also that the time was gone, finished!

The first shot of your film is of the horizon line. Is that a metaphor not only for Africa, for the past and thus for the whole film?

Yes, maybe. It is difficult for me to say for certain because metaphors are sometimes a little unconscious—perhaps, preferably unconscious!

And what about the title, Chocolat? There are moments in the film of people eating chocolate but one suspects it refers to something beyond that?

In the 1950s, to be “chocolat” meant to be cheated in some way. For example, if you had bought an expensive second-hand car and the salesman had said it was really good, but the minute you had driven away it broke down into little pieces, then maybe you would say, “I am chocolat!” I had this feeling that to be cheated by someone had consequences in relation to be being brown or chocolate, which in slang is a nickname for black people. It’s a funny expression but also an awful one.

[1] Abdullah Ibrahim is a jazz musician born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1934. He performed and recorded for the soundtrack of Chocolat, which was released under the title Mindif, the name of a mountain in Cameroon’s north.


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