Colonial Architecture
Elbert Ventura on Chocolat

Claire Denis came to us seemingly fully formed. Watching Chocolat, her first feature film, more than 20 years after it came out, one is struck by how unmistakably hers it is. The images are strange yet familiar, from the opening shots of a man and a boy playing on a beach, the camera lingering over limbs and toes arrayed against the sand, to the final shot, a seeming non sequitur of a group of airport workers just hanging out on their break. Denis emerged with Chocolat in 1988 after a string of fruitful apprenticeships with Dušan Makavejev, Costa-Gavras, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch. By the time she made her own movie, Denis was 40. Perhaps that accounts for the serene confidence that permeates Chocolat—there is nothing of the tentativeness, the feeling out and fumbling around, of the rookie outing. This was an artist who knew what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it.

As with many of Denis’s stories, Chocolat is fundamentally about a stranger in a strange land. The introductory image of a black father and son in the water is followed by a 180-degree pan to a white woman sitting on the shore, watching the two. Later, she hitches a ride with them, and only after a van passes by—“Cameroon” painted on its side—do we find out where we are. The woman’s name is France (Mireille Perrier), and she’s in Africa retracing the steps back to her childhood.

Like most of Denis’s cuts, the flashback to an earlier time is abrupt. From a view of lush countryside rushing past the car window we are transported to a dusty road in 1950s Cameroon. A pickup truck pulls over on the side of the road. The driver is Marc Dalens (Francois Cluzet), a captain in the French army in charge of a dusty, godforsaken prefecture. In the passenger seat is his beautiful wife Aimée (Giulia Boschi), serving the travelers a snack out of a picnic basket. In the back are their daughter France (Cecile Ducasse) and houseboy Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). Marc stares at the horizon behind him and beyond and says, “Next year I'll widen this road”—a sly first line that touches glancingly on colonial hubris. Imperialism is felt even more keenly in the family’s relationship with Protée. Chocolat captures with acuity the perversion of human relationships in this system. A loyal assistant to the master, a maid and object of desire to the mistress, a playmate and servant to the child, De Bankolé’s Protée is an almost idealized vision, the proud African—all sharp cheekbones and sharklike stare—suffering his subjection wordlessly.

Set in a remote outpost during the waning days of empire—etched on the Dalens’ porch are words from a previous occupant: “This house is the last house on earth”— Chocolat doesn't so much interrogate themes of colonialism, desire, memory, and childhood as use them as platforms for a sensual reverie. Its narrative centers on a few signal moments of that year in France's life: her father's departure on a long journey to a neighboring region, an absence that leaves Protée the man of the house; the arrival of an unexpected guest, an old British friend, while Marc is away; the stay of the passengers and crew of a plane that emergency lands in a nearby field. But the events themselves are beside the point. Rather, the spaces and silences between the members of the household are what interest Denis.

Ostensibly about France's childhood and her family, the movie is just as much about Protée. Chocolat bears witness to the steady accretion of humiliations he suffers, often unintentionally meted by his oblivious masters. Serving patiently at the table, Protée absent-mindedly kicks a monkey feeding off scraps on the dining room floor—the one creature in the place that he can lord over. De Bankolé is a majestic stoic (he was one of 2009's great apparitions in Jarmusch's The Limits of Control), but as the movie goes on, the impassive veneer begins to crack. In full view of a group of kids, France orders Protée to take her back home from their jaunt to town, a command that leads to a chorus of taunts at Protée. After filling the water can for Aimée’s bath, Protée kicks the buckets as he walks away. But the breaking point comes neither from a scolding nor a chore. With Aimee and France out one day, Protée takes a bath outside the bathhouse. When Aimee and France return unexpectedly, there is a moment of panic, as Protée fears they might see him as they walk past. They don’t—but Protée, recovering himself, finally succumbs to tears at his permanent state of unease.

In interviews, Denis has acknowledged that Chocolat's raw material springs from autobiography. But the movie resists the conventions of memoir. Although presented through France's eyes, we see images and scenes to which she could not have been privy—Protée and Aimée exchanging a charged glance in the mirror as he helps her with her gown, Marc sharing a song with his underlings, or Aimee, in a moment of weakness, touching Protée's calf (a gesture to which Protée responds by picking her up from the floor and shaking sense into her). The movie's perspective is free-floating, speculative. Every once in a while, Denis makes us aware of these other viewpoints, panning or dollying from an image—a caravan moving across the desert landscape, an impressive rock rising up from the desert floor, a man and a boy splashing on the beach—to an observer whose point of view we are in fact sharing.

For Denis, memory is grander than the personal—it is the springboard for the philosophical, the political, the lyrical. France's recollection of youth blooms into an oneiric reverie of a specific time and place. Grounded in impression and texture, Denis's works are stubbornly cinematic, foregrounding the intuitive links between images over the dutiful demands of narrative and exposition. The film is an early demonstration of her philosophy of montage. Comprised less of scenes than of moments, less of conversations than of gestures, Chocolat—as with all of Denis’s movies—is a masterpiece of editing. Of all her films that I've seen, Chocolat (except maybe 35 Rhums) is probably the least free associative. Her cutting here is more pointed in its juxtapositions: a shot of a lonely wife alone in bed rubs up against an image of Protée and a woman enjoying the night air; a shot of little France, alone atop a donkey, is followed by a shot of African children playing in a schoolyard.

But her tendency toward the elliptical is already apparent. In one scene, she cuts to Marc laughing with a guest. Almost as a throwaway, he says, “One day, we'll get kicked out of here,” followed abruptly by a cut to a new scene—no set up, no explanation, just a snippet that speaks volumes. Ambiguous flourishes abound. In one scene, Protée and France stare at a chicken that was slaughtered in the night by a predator. Without saying a word, Protée picks up the chicken foot and offers it to France, then rubs chicken blood all over her wrist, a blessing she accepts—a strange, even conspiratorial moment. And then there is the coda, mentioned earlier, which is perhaps the most Denis-ian move of all—a shot of Cameroonian men just lounging about in the shade, a scene that comes out of nowhere and yet seems a fitting capper. And indeed it is: we realize that it’s the first time in the movie that we see Cameroonians in command of their own time and their own space. Resting the camera on the men at ease, the scene is at once a grace note and a political afterword.

Resist as Denis might psychological interpretations of her work, the lingering effects of a peripatetic childhood can be felt. The search for home, the feeling of being an intruder, and the mysteriousness of the foreign are all themes in her movies. As Chocolat switches back to the present, we learn that the African man who gave France a ride is in fact African American. He tells France that he came in search of his homeland but didn't find it: “Here I'm nothing.” Throughout are keen reminders of rootlessness as a modern state: a graveyard of Germans in the African bush, two Europeans dressed in finery dancing in an empty house, adult France herself, wandering Cameroon in search of something.

That restlessness is manifest in Denis’s cinema. Perhaps the most pointedly political of her movies, Chocolat is also a fitting introduction to her aesthetic. It exerts something of a tidal pull, its fractured form and inscrutable signs suggesting the limits of the knowable. Indeed, Denis leaves Protée beyond our reach. The last we see of him is through France's eyes, as he walks away, head held high, into the black night. That is where he remains, in the dark recesses of memory and history. At once cerebral and sensual, a bewitching tapestry of fragments and elisions, the movie is that rarest of pleasures: a debut picture that clearly announces the arrival of a singular sensibility.