Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Stories of Africa from the perspective of a white person can be a touchy subject (especially for black folks). You have a continent full of black people, yet the majority of mainstream films over the years that come from that continent are either written and/or directed by white people ('Tstotsi' & 'District 9'), or the main characters in those films are white (Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando in 'A Dry White Season', Kevin Kline in 'Cry Freedom', Klaus Kinski in 'Cobra Verde', Stephen Dorf in 'The Power Of One', etc). How is that possible? I don't know if its cynicism or "black pride", but sometimes part of me (and many other African Americans) feels like blindly & ignorantly thinking; "what could a white person know about Africa?" (and I've never even stepped foot on the continent). But that's not how i feel about Claire Denis and her films. She's someone who kind of grew up around black people (she spent some of her youth living in various countries in Africa), yet doesn't brag about it like its some kind of cool accomplishment or Rachel Dolezal-esque badge of honor. I try to limit my conversations regarding race with some white people like that because at some point they all drop the infamous line; "look, i grew up around black people. Trust me, I know black people", as if we're some kind of cool artifact or something. But i don't get that vibe from Claire Denis. Maybe its the fact that 75% of her filmography focuses on black characters in some way shape or form without that patronizing feel. Her focus on black people and various black cultures (African, Caribbean & Afro-European to be specific) feels natural and unforced.
Although very personal and semi-autobiographical, 'Chocolat' isn't Denis' best film (in fact, in my ranking of her work I'd put it in the bottom half...but that's not saying it isn't a really good movie). But it still laid the seeds for her future work. The feature debut of a great director is always an important artifact and this is certainly no exception. So many elements and themes from Denis' later work can be traced right back to her first film...

-The focus on interracial romance which started in 'Chocalt' can be found in her later work like 'Trouble Every Day', 'I Cant Sleep', 'No Fear, No Die' and '35 Shots Of Rum'

-A focus on black people (specifically black males) through the eyes of a white female character (which at times kind of represents claire denis herself) as well as sexual tension between a black male and a white female can be seen in post-'Chocolat' films like 'No Fear, No Die', 'I Cant Sleep' and 'White Material'.

-References to the continent of Africa can be found in almost all of her films either directly like 'Beau Travail' and 'White Material' or in a more subtle/hinted about way like in 'Trouble Every Day' and 'No Fear, No Die'.

-And Even the few Claire Denis films like 'Nenette & Boni' and 'U.S. Go Home' that have nothing to do with Africa (or black people for that matter) got their basic themes from 'Chocolat' in that all three films are essentially "coming of age" tales centered around young people.

(make sure to read "The Cinema Of Claire Denis...")

Claire Denis directing on set w/ the young "France"
'Chocolat' centers around a young girl by the name of "France" living with her parents in a colonized section of Cameroon who becomes friends with the family "house boy"/male servant; "Protee" (played by Claire Denis regular Isaach Debankole). The majority of the film is a flashback told from the perspective of "France" as an adult. There's a lot of unspoken tension in the film mostly dealing with racial tension between the white french people living in colonized Cameroon and the native Africans as well as the sexual tension between France's mother and Protee. All the tension comes to a head when France's family takes in a mysterious stranger after an accident close by leaves him stranded. In the same fashion as films like 'Cria Cuervos' and 'The Spirit Of The Beehive', each character in the film is more than just a person. They essentially represent a group of people or an ideal: "France" represents the new/younger generation of french people. France's parents represents the "old way" of French society, and Protee (the servant) clearly represents the oppressed people of Africa who have had their land taken over by the French. Whats also interesting is that this is the only film in which Claire Denis touches on the tension between Africans and African Americans (even if it is a quick comment). In my opinion, the African American community could use a Claire Denis film right now with all the Tyler Perry & knock-off Tyler Perry movies out there right now. Additionally, the cast of 'Chocolat' is part of the weblike connection/friendships that Denis has with other contemporaries like Jim Jarmusch (who not only went on to cast 'Chocolat' co-star Isaach DeBankole in 4 of his future films, but has started to form a regular working relationship with Claire Denis' other regular actor; Alex Descas) and Leos Carax, who worked with Mireille Perrier (who plays the older "France" in 'Chocolat') on his first 2 films is connected to this film as well.
Like i said earlier, this isn't her best film, but its required viewing if you're a fan and want a better understanding of how she developed as a filmmaker over the years.
Well, that's it. I've now written about every one of Claire Denis's feature films with the exception of 'Nenette & Boni' (the only 2 things holding me back is that I've already written about 'U.S. Go Home', which is very similar in plot and cast and John Cribbs already did 'Nenette & Boni' justice on the pink smoke).


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