Criterion Prediction #275: Chocolat, by Alexander Miller
Director: Claire Denis
Synopsis: A young woman in France (Ducasse & Perrier) caught between her past and present reflects on her days in colonial Cameroon as a young girl living in a remote outpost with her parents and her relationship with their “houseboy” Proteé (Bankolé).
Critique: Just as France is caught between the past and present, Chocolat is stuck in a weird limbo that feels projected through Denis’ remarkably assured debut feature. This limbo is the anomalous nature of French cinema at this time; the nouvelle vague/left bank movement didn’t really settle or die off but branched off into specifically unique areas of calcified singularity. Television and video were contending with mainstream interests. The film industry was in a bizarre flux and who better than Denis to reflect on a period of cultural miasma? Chocolat is very much an autobiographical treatise on the director’s own upbringing (as her father was a civil servant stationed across colonial Africa, including Cameroon) and its coherent subterfuge, as well as the film’s relatively straightforward story, might be the only indicators of Denis’ burgeoning vision. The deliberate pacing, moody emphasis on atmosphere and cagey reluctance to political obviation are present throughout; the sun-kissed vistas and distilled moments of remembrance speak of personal prevalence. France Delans (as a child) and her relationship with Proteé communicates a delicate reverie of meaning. There’s an unspoken intelligence and language between these two figures and, corollary to Denis’ filmic locus, they reveal in one another profundities at the edges of one another; the meaning is on the periphery (or horizon perhaps?) and in the best way, Denis makes you work for it. Noot as hard as, say, her later works but Chocolat is composed with marked assurance and technical bravura far exceeding the informal rubric of a first-time feature replete with themes and topics that are a mainstay in the directors following oeuvre.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It’s not news to anyone that Denis is a Criterion mainstay, with White Material, Beau Travail, Let the Sunshine In. And with the recent news of Chocolat‘s 4K restoration and its presence (alongside Denis’ other films) on the Criterion Channel, this feels like a “when they” more than a “will they.” Its inclusion feels borderline assured but as an expansion of this idea, I’d like to dream a little bit more into something in the form of a potential collector’s set. Maybe an “Early Denis” collection featuring Chocolat, Man No Run, Jacques Rivette, The Watchman, I Can’t Sleep, or maybe even U.S. Go Home? Among these titles, the only ones blipping on the Criterion radar are Chocolat and Jacques Rivette, The Watchman, while the latter might be better suited as a bonus feature to either a Rivette or Denis release, frankly I’d be okay with either.