Starring Isaach De Bankolé, Guila Boschi and François Cluzet
Disclaimer: Just to clear things up right away, this is not the film about Judi Dench eating Juliette Binoche’s chocolate.
Before finally making her debut film at the age of 40, Claire Denis assisted some of the greatest working directors, including Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Their influence on her is obvious, as her first film CHOCOLAT, is just wonderful.
For her CHOCOLAT, Denis returns to one of the countries she was raised in, Cameroon, to tell the story of one black worker’s impact on a family in colonial French Africa. While being given a ride by a man and his son, France (Mireille Perrier in modern time, Cécile Ducasse when younger), looks back on her childhood living with her mother and father. As France’s father (François Cluzet) was often away on work, she and her mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi), were left in the care of the houseboy Protée (Isaach De Bankolé, who would later star in Denis’ films NO FEAR, NO DIE and WHITE MATERIAL). Protée and France were very close and spent much of their time together, but being a young girl, France is unable to pick up on the sexual tension between her mother and Protée. Things become even more complicated for Aimée and Protée after the emergency landing of a plane brings drifter, Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin), to the Dalens’ home. Luc, who also shares a sexual fascination for Aimée, brings her and Protée’s mutual feelings for each other to light, causing them both to uncomfortably confront them.
Besides having a well crafted and intriguing story, the film is very successful as a commentary on the treatment of the black people by the whites in colonial Africa, Denis revisits this idea, in another form, in her later film WHITE MATERIAL. With the help of Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis writes a great, deep script. The dialogue in a scene where France’s father explains the horizon includes some of the best I’ve ever heard, and this scene, like many others in the film, has a much deeper meaning than what it appears to. Like the script itself, the acting in the film is often very subtle, as it must be in any Denis film. De Bankolé is very strong as Protée, and it is easy to see why Denis continued to cast him in her films. There is truly no weak link in the acting in the film, which is thanks to Denis’ great casting choices and her intricate direction.
CHOCOLAT is a beautiful and quiet film. It is one of the best debuts I have ever seen, and I’m sure that at the time of its release, it was easy to see that Denis would go on to be the major force in French cinema that she is today.
The Claire Denis retrospective, “Objects of Desire” continues at TIFF Bell Lightbox through to November. For more information, visit tiff.net.