After wanting to watch Claire Denis’ film Chocolat for a couple years (and watching Lasse Hallström’s film Chocolat more than once), it finally happened. It’s cleverly structured, with a wraparound setting that proves a subtle but important point by giving the viewer (and the main character) additional information near the film’s end that solidifies its strongest point. After we and the protagonist assume that the man and his son who give her a ride are Africans, he tells her that they are, in fact, African-Americans. They traveled to Cameroon to get in touch with their ancestry, only to be disenchanted with the epiphany that they do not belong in Cameroon, and the natives have made that clear to them.
The aforementioned serves the larger point that the main character, traveling to Cameroon to reconnect with the place of her childhood, also does not really belong there. Being white and French, it’s only in the loose sense that she “belonged” there in the first place. The majority of the narrative takes us back to her upbringing to observe this now-distant life from her retrospective point of view. Her father was governor of the region while it was under French colonial rule. As foreigners in a land being forced to become their own, it’s no accident that the little girl’s name is “France.” As if to make Cameroon more French, the parents have created a little “France” of their own to occupy African space.
Space seems to play an important role in the film. The adult France is mostly seen while riding in a car, giving a cramped if not claustrophobic sense. No sooner does France flashback to her past, but the space opens wide to the Cameroonian scenery. The memories begin with her riding in another automobile, but this time it’s a truck, and she’s sitting in the exposed bed of the truck with a native man, Protée. The contrast effectively gives that quintessentially childlike feeling that everything else is bigger than you. The adult France has lost that sense, as most adults do.
The character of Protée functions strongly within the spatial aspect. Protée works for the family in what may not be technically but by all appearances is a master-slave relationship. While not mistreated in the overt ways that we are used to associating with slavery, Protée is nonetheless treated as a lesser form of life. He is never not working for the family and is scolded if he is not immediately present upon summoning. In terms of space, the house, but particularly the master bedroom works to reflect the power struggle that goes on between Protée and Aimée (France’s mother, the governor’s wife). Protée is never seen in the bedroom until, with her husband away, Aimée beckons him to sit by the window with a gun and a knife in case of a hyena attack. However, Aimée is not alone; France is in bed with her. Later, Aimée tells Protée twice to enter to help tie the back of her dress. Protée’s hesitation implies that entering her bedroom is not a normal occurrence, especially when her husband is out of town.
At a slightly later episode, Aimée enters her room to find Protée there to her surprise. He is organizing her clothes into dresser drawers. The implication is that Protée has read too much into Aimée’s previous permissions, as she chastises him for both being in her room and going through her things. She tells him never again to do so. The next significant encounter in the bedroom occurs when Protée, apparently out of tradition, enters from the patio to close the doors from the inside. Sitting on the floor against the wall just inside is Aimée, who reaches out and touches Protée’s leg as he closes the doors. Protée reacts by lifting Aimée off the ground almost violently, by her shoulders. Once they stand face-to-face, he walks away. This physical confrontation between the two characters is not a complete surprise based on hints of desire at earlier stages. The most blatant instance is in the scene mentioned when Protée helps Aimée tie her dress. By positioning himself behind her, as she stands in front of a mirror, both of them look straight at each other. This gaze not only disrupts the established power relationship between the two of them (master-slave interactions work best without eye contact), but it denotes a potential for mutual desire, though it is a desire that is never fulfilled.
In these examples, the bedroom is an informative device by which Aimée communicates to Protée the extent to which she allows him power. He is given and denied access to the bedroom always to his surprise, never when he expects it. In the last episode, Protée has had enough, and he makes it clear to Aimée through body language that she can no longer adjust the “necessary” master-slave power dynamic. In this way, the colonized (Protée) assumes power momentarily in order to reestablish that the power is in the hands of the colonizer (Aimée). This is not an anomaly, as is seen examples of marriages when victimized wives give assent to their abusive husbands’ need for absolute control. In the case of colonialism, it manifests itself at the level here portrayed to the level of previously colonized countries revealing their impotence once their colonizers have left.
In the end, Chocolat illustrates important (post)colonial themes from an all-too-infrequent female perspective, including power struggle, the gaze, space and boundary, partial presence and absence, ambivalence, and imitation.