Race and Representation in German and European Cinema (Fall 2006)
Term Paper, 12/18/06
Chocolat (F, 1988) by Claire Denis – A Case Study for Race and Representation in German and European Cinema
Chocolat ’s main plot unfolds around the memories of the French girl France in 1950s pre-independence Cameroon. The story appears in a flashback and is framed by a contemporary story of the adult France coming back to her roots. By challenging stereotypical Hollywood cinematography filmmaker Claire Denis also challenges the way colonialism is commonly explained. Denis does not take sides in her negotiation of race and gender relations in colonial times but rather observes these relations in her film through the eyes of the little girl France and the black servant Protée. This essay will examine some of the major issues, aspects and motifs treated and discussed in the film and their complementary cinematographic implementation. I will give special attention to issues of gazes, music/audio and metaphoric narration.
Building up on her own biography and a novel by Cameroonian author Ferdinand Oyono Chocolat shows the nostalgical returning of a French colonial officer’s daughter, France, to the place of her childhood. Denis’s film deals around the themes of colonialism, race, and nation. All three play together in the opening scene. We see a black father and son couple – presumably natives - playfully running around in the ocean. The camera then turns to a white woman sitting on the beach alone. The spectator, not knowing where the film is headed, is invited to see the racial line between the blacks in the ocean and the white on the beach. The races are physically divided; even by the element they exist in (in this particular scene). The following shot blurs this division. Father and son are lying on the beach and the water that washes around their bodies slowly gives way to the beach. All three actors are now on the beach and – although still physically distant – share a common destiny, which the film reveals at the very end. The black father – against the spectator's first assumptions – is an African-American who, not unlike France, tries to return to Africa in the attempt to find his “real” home. In the end, the African-American William J. "Mungo" Park gives the advice to France to leave the country as long as she is still able to do so. He tells her the story of his denial in this putative home country. He does not know her history but either way he is probably right when claiming that his right to be there is more persuasive than hers.
Although obviously coming from different racial backgrounds, both characters in this scene are connected through the common experience of rejection in Cameroon. Within the film the rejection is therefore clearly qualified as a national matter rather than a racial or colonial. This also gives insight to the changed modalities in the former colony. In pre-independence Cameroon the colonial oppressors were certainly rejected – overtly and covertly. No African-American would have chosen to come settle in the country of his ancestors under colonial rule. Since Cameroon is now independent and understands itself as nation such an attempt makes sense for the black “intruder” but apparently not for the natives. The film tries not to explain this specific rejection of Park as Denis – as a white French woman – is not willing to draw from a point of view she can not possess – that of an African.
The use of music in the film is very rare and underscores the loneliness of the white oppressors in this place they do not belong. Two French songs are sung throughout the flashback scene without any instrumentation and once more pointing out the separation of the colonialists and the colonized that will be examined a bit later. Recorded background music can be heard only during the transition to and from the flashback to the present as to show the regained joy in life of the now independent people of Cameroon.
In Marc’s song “we hear him sing […] an old French song whose words ironically state a clear preference for love over empire.” Since he is almost always away from home to carry out his colonial duties one could project this song to his love of the country he is in. This assumption is reinforced by his rather ill tempered reaction to the question of one of his black listeners about the sense of “Ma Mie” – which resembles the name of his wife Aimée. The character of Marc is truly in love with “his” colony and he is shown how he respectfully treats the people. But, nonetheless, he is not able to really get in touch with the natives. In his position as a French official he has to mediate colonial interests and interests of his subordinates. This ends for him - outstandingly the character most interested in an understanding of the colonized – in fatal misunderstanding and rejection. An old man tells him about the problems with the lions and he offers help through military. This offer is immediately rejected because it breaks with the tradition of the natives and therefore can’t be done. Marc is depicted as a dreamer and idealist regarding a cultural understanding but in the end it is him who speaks out the words about the coming ending of colonial rule: “One of these days, we’ll be driven out of here.”
 It is said in the narrative that he got this nickname from the natives. So he is obviously marked as an outsider by the native population. Although one probably can't divide Park from Cameroonians, his nickname tells everybody about his not being part of the nation. The nickname refers to the Scottish adventurer and explorer Mungo Park who was travelling Africa in the 18th century.
 His ancestors were forced to leave their home country by oppressors; France’s parents were the representatives of an oppressive power.
 One song is sung by Marc; the other by the planter Delpich.
 Durham, Carolyn. More Than Meets the Eye, in: “Moving Pictures, Migrating Identities”, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003, p.133.
 He keeps on drawing landscapes in his notebook and cares for the people’s hardships.
 Quoted after: Durham, p.135
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- race cinema representation chocolat claire denis denis 1958 france frankreich gaze mulvey ethnicity ethnic racism film european cinema german cinema european german germany europe africa cameroon kamerun ferdinand oyono mungo park