Director: Claire Denis
Screenplay: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring: Isaach De Bankolé, Giulia Boschi, François Cluzet, Mireille Perrier
Year: 1988
Country: France, West Germany, Cameroon
Language: French (some English, Hausa, Arabic)
Subtitles: English
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 105 mins

Official Summary: Claire Denis’ (BEAU TRAVAIL, TROUBLE EVERY DAY) semi-autobiographical exploration of the colonial power struggle in Cameroon is the first in a series of her films exploring French colonialism and racism in west Africa. A Palme D’Or nominee, CHOCOLAT (1988) is a remarkably assured directorial debut featuring all the tension, subtlety and sophistication that characterise Denis’ films, brought further to vivid life in a dazzling new 4K restoration.
France (Mireille Perrier), a young woman, returns to Cameroon to visit Mindif, the colonial outpost she grew up in during the last days of French rule. As she travels, she recalls her childhood there and the bond formed with their ‘houseboy’ Protée (Isaach de Bankolé). A quiet and observant child, unable to quite understand the simmering sexual and racial tensions between the adults around her, France finds her idyll shattered when a plane full of strangers makes an emergency landing nearby.

Coming-of-age stories (or bildungsroman) are a core part of cinema, often directly aiming to transport adult viewers back to their own childhoods, to recall or re-experience how they saw the world then. However, many are infused with too much nostalgia, lacking the distance and consideration that the past often benefits from when in adulthood. Famed director Claire Denis’ first full fiction feature after years of AD work with other indie legends such as Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders tells a story that draws on her own French African childhood, but with direct nods to Doris Lessing’s first novel The Grass Is Singing (1950) and Une Vie de Boy (1956) by the Cameroonian author Ferdinand Oyono. The latter contributes very much to the character of Protée, played with fantastic aplomb by Isaach de Bankolé, who brings a Sidney Poitier-like restrained anger to his role as a ‘houseboy’ to a French colonial couple in the north of Cameroon. The former, while set in the pre-independent Zimbabwe, is about a white farmer couple, and the parallels are immediately obvious in François Cluzet and Giulia Boschi’s French couple Marc and Aimée Dalens.
Cluzet, probably best known to modern Anglophone audiences from the Harlen Coben adap Tell No One (2006) and Untouchable (2011), plays a figure recognisable to those who have seen films about the British colonial experience, a somewhat button-downed uniformed official whose travels leave his beautiful wife alone to run an estate full of men of different ages and race while trying to raise a young daughter. Symbolically named France, she is played by Cecile Ducasse in a fairly naturalistic way, and we often see the narrative and adult characters through her perspective, tying in with the present-day wrap-around narrative in which the adult France played by Mireille Perrier returns to the country to travel back to her childhood home. The majority of the film rests however on the shoulders of Italian actress Boschi, who at the time was best-known to Western viewers from Michael Cimino’s adap of Mario ‘The Godfather’ Puzo’s novel The Sicilian, and she is more than up to the task, conveying the full complexity of this woman Aimée far from her birthland yet very much at home in this stark landscape, an object of desire for many yet obedient of the social demands on her, authoritative even when said authority is questioned or mocked.
There is beauty in the terrain, Denis’ compositions a reminder of how the great Westerns or Peter Weir’s films place humans in nature, here explicitly commented on by Cluzet’s Marc. There is simmering conflict amongst the various characters, mostly along racial lines but also between the men of money and the men of uniform, French domestic tensions surfacing in the Cameroonian heat. And there is the complex nature of time, memory and perception, conveyed through the editing and colour schemes, the modern wraparound signalled through subtle visual changes rather than blatant cuts or title cards. Even without that it feels like a novel, chaptered, layered, thoughtful, considered, possessed of both tragedies and comedic moments, the rawness of the world to the young and yet a different kind of rawness to the old.
All legends have a beginning, and astonishingly this wonderful, humanist feature was Denis’ debut. Now 77, she has approved this fantastic 4K restoration from Eclair Restoration, who worked with an expert from the Cineteca de Bologna and the original cinematographer, to sublime effect. Ripe for re-discovery by new generations, this is film preservation done right and absolutely worth anyone’s time, especially for those interested in how cinema was before and alongside 70s blockbuster culture.

Chocolat was released on Region B BD-50 Blu-ray by BFI Films 29/04/2024. The 1080p 24fps video and LPCM 2.0 mono audio (48kHz/24-bit) audio are fantastic; as always a UHD presentation might have presented everything better, but this disc is SO good it’s hard to imagine it could be bettered. Robert Alazraki’s sublime photography has been sympathetically restored, while the music from South Africa’s great Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Abraham) is perfectly balanced with the dialogue and ambient sounds.
The BFI have provided a small but perfectly formed set of extras:

  • A commentary from film scholar and critic Kate Rennebohm;
  • Claire Denis à propos de Chocolat (2023, 18 mins): Claire Denis discusses Chocolat and its new restoration;
  • Claire Denis in Conversation (2019, 49 mins): the filmmaker looks back over her career;
  • Childhood Memories (Mary Martins, 2018, 4 mins): a multilayered autobiographical animation exploring memories of a childhood visit to Lagos, Nigeria
  • Trailers: Original theatrical trailer, 2023 trailer;
  • ***First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with essays by Cornelia Ruhe, Catherine Bray and Kevin Le Gendre, and writing on Childhood Memories by director Mary Martins; notes on the special features and credits.

As always, the BFI bless us with a fantastically informative extras package, with the highlights being the French interview with Denis for this restoration, and the 2019 on-stage BFI Q&A moderated by critic Tricia Tuttle. As with almost all BFI discs, we are treated to a thematically sympathetic short film we might never get to see otherwise, in this case a mixed-media meditation on going home to Lagos from Anglo-Nigerian lecturer and multimedia artist Mary Martins, also featured in the booklet. Finally, the excellent commentary and three other essays all provide fantastic academic and production contexts. This feels like the definitive release of a terrific film that is a great way in for newcomers to Denis’ works.

Where to watch Chocolat (1988)
Chocolat (1988) - BFI Films
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.