A French woman called France (Mireille Perrier) meets a black man and his son in south Cameroon. The man introduces himself as an American in search of his origins and, as a way of farewell, comments on the strange scar that has left no lines on France’s palm. This remark triggers a huge flash back, almost the duration of the film, to France’s childhood in far north Cameroon, in the mid fifties, in a former German colony which became a Franco-British protectorate in 1918. France’s father, Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), is the commandant de cercle and her mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi), is often left in the company of her seven or eight-year old daughter France (Cécile Ducasse) and their house-boy, Protée (Isaach de Bankolé). Visitors are welcome as they alleviate Aimée’s loneliness. An English neighbour and various adventurers stranded by a plane breakdown bring the mother and her daughter closer to Protée who has become their protector. Various incidents create psychological, erotic and political tension between the characters that have to choose their camp, the masters or the servants’ quarter. The question arises as to why a colonial background was chosen for such an understated, domestic conundrum.
Chocolat, Claire Denis’s first feature film was awarded the César for the best first film in Cannes (1989) and attracted much attention. Critics mostly commented on the beautiful cinematography and the French colonial woman’s unspoken, unrequited desire for her handsome African servant. Because of its aestheticisation, the film was read as ‘nostalgic memory’ of colonialism in Cameroon and therefore not valid as a historical film (Watson 2006: 193; 202).
The short opening and closure of the film, set in the 1980s, are as important as the colonial flashback to provide clues to the enigmatic repetition of dialogues or actions in Claire Denis’s narrative of a colonial childhood. Before analysing some of these repeated sequences, we cannot ignore the challenging scene of the burnt hands. Protée, the male servant of the French administrator’s family was relegated to the machinery shed for having humiliated Aimée by rejecting her advances. France, Aimée’s daughter, misses her playmate and visits him in the generator room. When Protée grabs a hot water pipe and encourages France to copy him, both the girl and the viewer are surprised at this blatant cruelty. Protée's hand appears more deeply burnt against the dark background than France's hand and tears are welling in his eyes. Whether this silent scene is a true or invented memory, how does it find its logical and meaningful place in the structure of the film?
In the two scenes of exchange of food between Protée and France, the girl has the upper hand. When Protée gives her an ant sandwich in exchange for an apple (a fruit imported from France), she is fair play. In the second eating scene, however, when Protée offers her butterfly wings, she feeds him spoonfuls of soup, as though he were himself the child. In the third pair of parallel eating scenes, the roles are reversed. ‘Voilà ton picotin, ma cocotte!’ (‘Here are your oats, my fillie!’), with these ambiguous words, Delpich, a racist coffee planter (played by Jacques Denis), expresses his affection to his ‘ménagère’, the housekeeper and African mistress he keeps in his bedroom away from his French hosts. Picotin is the portion of oats given to a horse or beast of burden, and cocotte, among many other meanings including ‘darling’, can refer to a prostitute and a horse. Delpich’s ‘fillie’ is lying on the floor when he brings her a plate of ‘oats’. The African servant, who has already proved his talent for languages as he speaks both French and English, overhears these words and repeats them to France while playing and eating with her in the shade under a truck. This brief repetition sequence, contained within one single shot, distinguishes itself by one of Protée's rare laughs. It seems that France does not even hear or comprehend Protée's condescension. Protée's attempt to make France endure his humiliations as a ‘boy’, signifies his estrangement from France the girl and perhaps the country.
The next two pairs of repeated sequences foreground the divide between coloniser and colonised and eventually provide a glimpse of post independence freedom. On the one hand, in the two scenes of a man using an open air shower, Luc, the provocative French ex-priest, joyously exhibits his nudity to attract Aimée’s attention, whereas Protée curls up in distress and cries when he realizes that Aimée has returned from her gardening routine and, we presume, will summon him any time for some chore. He reacts like Diouana, in Sembene’s Black Girl, who could never escape her mistress’s orders, not even when she was in bed or in the bathroom. On the other hand, the last two repeated scenes distinctly set up colonial against independent Cameroon. Two scenes show the backs of men, first, in the fifties, Protée and his master solemnly urinating into a ditch and, some twenty-five years later, three carefree African airport employees with their backs turned to the audience do likewise. Similarly, the departure of the repaired French plane in the fifties is echoed by the departure of a Cameroonian jet. The second take is an endless, happy and messy scene of men having fun under the rain to the tune of bracing music specifically composed by Abdullah Ibrahim for Chocolat.
The cinematic parallelism helps define the dialectics of the director. There is a progressive argumentation for the colony's emancipation. The childhood appears to be reconstructed to act as a sort of catharsis for the filmmaker and to demonstrate to her viewers that colonialism is a dead end. I contend that Chocolat, far from being nostalgic for colonialism, qualifies as a historical film, not for staging armed conflicts – there is only one shot of Protée brandishing a gun in an ironic dream of rebellion – but for the representation of the impossibility of any sort of relationship between coloniser and colonised. The historical event in Chocolat is a European film-maker’s appropriation of Frantz Fanon’s repeated and expanded concept of revolution in The Damned of the Earth – a total break-up with the coloniser as the only way of overcoming colonial exploitation. (Some viewers argue that colonial plundering goes on because African artefacts are seen on the conveyor belt loading a plane bound for France, but we hope these artefacts are bought and not stolen.)