Toti O’Brien: Because Of Who He Is
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/ADptk38K14g) 20.03.2022.
Yours, Not Truly – reappraising Denis’ Chocolat
In 1988, on release, Roger Ebert praised the subtlety and complexity of Claire Denis’ first feature movie, Chocolat. Those qualities apply to Denis’ work in general. Her films are so layered—and the layers so skillfully enmeshed—they indefinitely resonate, prompting ever-new questions and reflections.
Ebert’s and the vast majority of commentaries, for instance, identify racism as the movie’s core subject. It is racism that hinders mutual attraction between Aimée (the white mistress) and Protée (the black houseboy), thus creating the tension that propels the narrative. True, the movie is about the tail end of French colonialism in Cameroon (late nineteen fifties), about racism and racial conflict. Yet the interplay of the three fundamental strands of oppression - race, gender and class - is so thick here that it can’t be ignored without falling into the type of simplification Denis’ work intrinsically defies.
Aimée seems to be sexually attracted by Protée, the African houseboy, but she can’t realize her desire (suggested to be reciprocal) because she is white and he is black. Well, not exactly. She can’t for three reasons, the most pressing of which is hard to define: because she is white and he is black, because she is the mistress and he is a servant, and because she is a married woman.
Were Protée a white man in the motherland, would the situation be different? No, the social taboo would be identical, as proven by a plethora of films and literature about this very topic. With one, troublesome, difference. In the motherland, the type of intimacy between the master and servant shown throughout Chocolat would never occur. No man would make the bed of a lady of the house. None would be allowed in her bedroom, especially not in her presence. None, for sure, would fasten her corset. In the motherland, though men servants are a moderate presence within wealthy homes, men dress men and women dress women. Period.
The invention of the “boy” is quintessentially colonial and only applies to locals. “Boys” serving within the house are not imported from Europe because—as I just said—allowing men within the intimate domain of women’s lives, bodies and body functions, isn’t thinkable. Why is it in the colony, as far as male servants strictly belong to the indigenous population? Are there any logistic reasons? Not sure. I believe the practice expresses, if semi-consciously, the overall view of the colonized forged by the colonizer to his own ends – not just a diminishing, rather a minimizing view, both infantilizing and neutering (in this case, emasculating) those meant to be enslaved. So the colored “boys” serving in the house are and aren’t men. They are men, but not as white men are. Therefore, race complicates the preexistent class-barrier with an element of uncanny closeness justified by a prejudice that un-genders, un-ages, but essentially de-humanizes its object.
Race also adds, of course, the problem of visibility. Should the lady of the house get pregnant of a “boy’s” child, she couldn’t not pass the fruit of her womb for one of her husband’s, as she could in different circumstances. Gender, here, collides with race in defining the exact contours of the taboo. Master/maid and mistress/boy relationships are surely different. Actually, they are antithetic, and the master/maid rules don’t substantially vary because of race issues. They remain the same when exported. No caution is demanded from the maid in order to avoid intimacy with the master. On the contrary, her sexual availability is implicitly part of her job description. Bastards born to the master by maids can be provided for with small damage to the patrimony (and paternity until recent times was quite hard to prove). They, colored or not, are minor inconveniences if any, and accounted for. Bastards born to the wife would be inheritors if not promptly disowned, and the adultery—hard to be concealed—would disgrace the husband along with the wife.
So the set of rules applied to these apparently analog situations is discrepant at best. Such asymmetry is humorously hinted at in the movie, just once, en passant. At some point Aimée and Marc (her husband) host a group of white folks stranded after an emergency landing. One of their guests is Mr. Delpich, a French coffee planter accompanied by his black bonne à tout faire. We don’t see much of her until when, after a sumptuous dinner, Delpich steals some leftover meat and cake from the kitchen, wraps them into a napkin and brings them to his room. He deposes the scraps on the floor, where the woman is squatting. For you, my little chick. He’s serving her dinner as Protée; the “boy,” did a minute earlier in livery and gloves, handing silver trays to his impeccably seated mistress. What an interesting parody/parallel.
So what strikes me, here, along with the abomination of the racial divide, is the extraordinary invention of the virtual eunuch, the houseboy—this apotheosis of denial, perhaps stressful for all parties involved, but incomparably worse for the denied—and the puzzling master-maid-mistress-boy reverse mirror image, such spectacular result of gender inequality. Denis manages to highlight both phenomena, though the angle of her lens is slanted, catching multiple foci.
Three scenes of this movie have been often quoted by reviewers: the “shower,” the “pipe,” and the unlabeled scene in which Protée rejects Aimée’s pass. They are pivotal shots, all sharing an element of surprise that give viewers a jolt. They remain etched into our memory and mind.
To me, they also remain mysterious, and consequently more compelling They ask for multiple readings, and of course I am not hunting for the meaning (admitted it were univocal) intended by the director (that would be already altered and complicated by the actors’ personal input), but exploring the ample space left between that point of origin and all possible associations and resonances.
Protée is taking a shower outside when Aimée and France, her child, impromptu walk by. He is so troubled, he sharply hits his elbow against the rough concrete wall. What arrests the attention, here, is the discrepancy between the incident (he is seen naked by his female white employer but rapidly, askew, and not by any of his fault) and Protée’s reaction. Both the violence of his jerk and the intensity of suffering on his face are striking. So the question is, why did he feel that way? Why so bad? There are two main motives for self-arming. One is punishment. Of what is he punishing himself? The other one is “cutting,” meaning he needed to provoke enough physical pain to promptly and efficiently release a psychological pain otherwise impossible to sustain. The twist of his features points to this second cause, at least makes it predominant. While a need for self-punishment could be implied by his having (unwillingly!) broken the strict norms of class/race/role/gender separation, cutting in order to release unbearable pain calls for deeper reasons. As if he, truly, had been violated, almost raped by the fugitive glance cast by the white women upon his nakedness. As if his nakedness weren’t just the surface of his bare body, but the indivisible sum of his body and genuine soul—his individual essence, all that he possessed under the livered mask he had to daily present to his employers/masters. That, he needed to keep out of their reach at all times, at all costs.
The scene showing Protée’s rebuff of Aimée is the strongest of the film in my opinion, as it represents the one moment when things tilt on their axes, and a possible reversal of their implacable order is glimpsed at. Here, all is in the gestures. The facial expressions reveal quasi nothing.
As for the previous scene, what are Protée’s reasons? Why does he refuse his white mistress’ invitation? Why so promptly, seemingly without hesitation? After all, the situation is safe, the timing propitious, and she’s initiating. Is he just protecting himself, to avoid serious punishment if/once found out? Is he also protecting her, knowing she will be in trouble if/once discovered? Logically, one of those explanations should work. But again, they seem insufficient to explain the intensity of his physical gesture, which appears to convey deeper motives.
I have been thinking of Protée’s loyalties, about which we know nothing because, honestly, we know nothing about him other than the fact he’s brilliant, perfectly masters the rules of the game and, as noted when considering the shower’s scene, permanently wears a tightly sealed mask before his employers, as most servants/slaves do. As a result, he’s emotionally impenetrable to the viewer: that is why the rare instants when his features betray feeling become landmarks. That is why his motions, when they don’t belong to the scripted rote, are sheer mystery.
I have been wondering about his loyalties. Improbable as it might be, we don’t know if a form of male loyalty exists between Protée and Marc, Aimée’s husband, in spite of the racial and class divide. After all, Marc is kind. After all, he thinks very well of Protée. Moreover, he trusts him… or so he claims. To be exact, the scene when, on leaving, he confides him his daughter and wife for care and protection, is full of lingering undertones. So much, we are not sure of what Marc really implies. If he warns Protée against temptation, if he gives him some kind of permission instead, is very hard to say. What cannot be missed is the weight of the unspoken. Can male loyalty between Protée and his white master be? After all, we know nothing of Protée, other than the script he goes by.
Also, I think of a fugitively mentioned fiancée. Viewers, distracted by the lure of the master/servant flirt, might forget about her. We know nothing about this girlfriend, perhaps more desirable than Aimée. Which leads me to question, in fact, desire itself. How strong is it? I mean, the alleged desire between these two characters? Yes, it’s there - as initially noted, it propels the narrative… together with many other things. But it’s there, and it’s pivotal. Only, is it desire? All we truly witness is tension, which is part of desire. Isn’t desire a vague, instable compound of various elements? Aren’t there many different kinds of desire, based on different element ratios? I am sure there are. Desire as shown in Chocolat could be of a pretty low quality. I suspect it to be not as impeded by racism as it is, indeed, engendered by it – meaning that it seems essentially made of compression, frustration, born from forced excess/proximity espousing forced unattainability, alias taboo. This is what thickens the air… the unnatural laws setting invisible barriers within a space so intimate that all vital juices, even breath, unavoidably mesh. Perhaps, this kind of desire isn’t so desirable. To Protée, at least.
But the reasons behind Protée’s choice aren’t as compelling, to me, as the motion through which he carries his choice. Aimée is squatting on the floor, out of sight, behind the door. When Protée steps in, she grabs and caresses his calf. Slowly, he reaches down to her level, lightly brushes her cheek. At the speed of light, then, he stands up and he simultaneously redresses her. Startled, stunned, she lands on her feet with the rigidity of a toy soldier. What happened? What did he do, exactly? He could/should have just walked away. He straightens her up instead. Lifting her from her crouched posture, he brings her back to the stature she is supposed to maintain, is she? In other terms, he puts her in her place. Namely, he does to her what superiors do to the subordinate on a regular basis. And I chose the word redress (that simply means “straighten” in French) because in the English language it double-tasks, hinting at re-dressing. Literally, in one masterly move he both rectifies her and re-covers her with the stiff costume/mask of her owner-ous dominant role.
If there is a catharsis of sorts in the entire movie… No. If there is a truce, a lull, a moment of hope, this scene is it.
The “pipe” scene is connected to the “redress” one—logically segueing—but it also resonates with the “shower” scene because, again, cutting/or/self-punishing occurs. Following the abovementioned exchange with his mistress, Protée is sent out of the house at her demand. Marc, who must give the order, is perplexed. He knows Protée is perfect at his job, probably very difficult to replace, but he obeys his wife wishes, without asking for reasons he likely can guess. Protée is sent to work in the garage. Of course, he’s as good with engines as he is serving dinner. France, Aimée’s seven-year-old daughter, comes to see him.
France is an only child. We don’t know if she is born in the colony, and she probably is. We don’t know how long she has known Protée but, judging from the quality of their relationship, probably since she has memory. France by the way is the one recounting the story, starting in the present day—an adult woman returning to the place of her childhood—then switching to a movie-long flashback, to loop back into the present. The movie is about France, her childhood, more than all her relationship to the place of her origins.
The movie isn’t about the relationship between mistress and servant though, as said, such element is crucial to the narrative and gives it momentum. But the story here is France’s. Her past. And place. So the “pipe” scene focuses on the character around which the entire movie is built.
France comes to see Protée inside the garage because Protée is, simply put, her best friend, as we have witnessed through their constant and wonderful interactions. Now he is suddenly gone. Perhaps, she doesn’t understand the cause of his vanishing. For sure, she must miss him. Inside the garage, she watches him work on an engine. She points at a pipe and asks if it’s hot. He puts his hand on it, firmly keeps it there, knowing she will do what she always does (when eating black ants that he puts on her buttered bread, when braving the hyena in his company in the middle of night). Trust him.
The pipe scene still haunts me because, like the shower’s, I find it stubbornly elusive. No doubt, for France the episode is both a defloration and an initiation. It is also a branding, something that rarely occurs to white people. She will bear the scar of that burning for the rest of her life, as shown towards the end of the movie, when the African-American man she meets during her tour tries to read her destiny. Her left hand has no lines. But what’s torn, besides her skin and flesh, is trust as we said. And that doesn’t scar well. That—breaking a child’s trust—is usually irreparable.
While I could resonate with Protée’s motives for punishing France (as a substitute for her mother), taking revenge on France (seen as Aimée’s replica), I can’t truly grasp why he chooses to break her trust in him, which is what he deliberately does. So ruinous? So final? The extent of his resentment and pain must demand it. Which suggest that in spite of his usual poise, his mechanic gears as pristine as his butler livery was, the attention he clearly devotes to his task, Protée is mad out of his mind. Is the change of job so upsetting? No doubt, common opinion sees it as degrading. House servants are a step above the others. Their tasks are lighter, cleaner, and they share a zest of the masters’ comfort. But Protée seems so rooted in reality, we could ask ourselves if such smoky privilege is that relevant to him. Perhaps, yes.
What I sense though, is the unique frustration of someone who’s forced into a Catch-22, a double bind of sorts. That is the kind of feeling that engenders both fury and despair, because no way out is left. When Aimée takes the initiative with her “boy,” he must accept or refuse, and that is a tough one. Quickly, bravely, he makes up his mind. The point is, he might already know that it doesn’t matter. It cannot get it right. If he accepts or he doesn’t, he’ll be punished just the same. He, in other words, is cornered and trapped in the very moment when the lady of the house lifts her hand.
Protée perfectly grasps the rules of the game, we said, and he’s made a point of playing by the rules for his own advantage. He is extremely clear-eyed. He might have a plan. He might be saving his wages, if any, in order to get away, join his girlfriend wherever she is and move on with life. Only, playing by the rules doesn’t work within the oppressor/oppressed dyad. There are rules, and they are as arbitrary as fiercely enforced, but they are also unilateral. The oppressor can break them at her leisure, anytime she wants. The oppressed can strictly abide to them, and still be condemned. Because only one rule applies, and that is the whim of the oppressor. Were Protée imprudently oblivious of such fact (was he?), now he knows for sure. He has been punished not because of what he did or didn’t, but because of the place he occupies within society since his birth – something he can’t control or modify. In other words, because of who he is.
After all, that might be the very reason why, on his turn, he punishes France. Not because she wronged him with actions or words, of what she did or didn’t. But because of who she is. Because her mere being unavoidably damages his.
Denis’ movies in general show little hope, and such parsimony is clever. Because hope in matters like those she addresses is slim and slender, indeed.
It’s there, nevertheless.
The two tenses of the movie, present and flashback, resonate with deliberate repetition. Some of the questions evoked by the past haunt the present as well. In a different way. Denis’ re/presented slice of late-colonialism is inherently thought-provocative, while the framing fragments of present tense are puzzling because of the vision they carry. They contain a kind of half-spoken moral gloss, which in the flashback Denis manages to subdue, almost omit.
Adult France meets a black man during her visit, and a subtle game of attraction/rejection unsurprisingly ensues—a pale replica of the ambiguous interaction between Protée and the pair Aimée/France. Now the pair is male (father and young son) while France is alone, mother-daughter made one. The son teaches words in the local language to his dad. He enumerates body parts, echoing an identical scene (same words, same touching of the corresponding anatomical areas) occurred decades before between France and Protée. Therefore, time locks upon itself and the present becomes a reenactment - the opportunity of reliving the past, perhaps understand something. Rather, fix what went wrong. But hope, as we said, is slim in Denis’ work, because like Protée she is clear-eyed. So the present proves fixing isn’t possible, at least isn’t given or easy. France keeps a distant, defensive attitude towards the man she meets, though the movie opens with her gaze cast upon his body at the beach and that gaze is gently, politely predatory. But she acts, let’s say, like one whose trust was once sharply broken. After the man asks to see the palm of her hand, and the ugly scar is exposed, she makes an awkward invitation that without a clear reason he rejects. We have seen this before.
The replay of failure-to-connect over the racial divide strikes me as a rather useless device, merely enforcing the idea that connecting is hard. But we already knew. Even less convincing is the man saying he’s an “American Negro,” come to Africa in search of roots that apparently elude him, as he feels alien to the place in spite of his skin color. If this might be true for some (all depending on what exactly they are looking for), certainly it isn’t a general rule. The point made seems to be that skin color doesn’t really make a difference. But it does. That the white ex-colonialist woman’s and the American black man’s ties to Africa are equally inconsistent. Which is disputable at best, or simply untrue.
The last scene of the movie is also intriguing and strange. France is at the airport, tickets in hand and about to leave Africa (“go,” the man has said to her, “petite, avant qu’on the mange, before someone eats you”). From a half-closed window (she delicately lifts the slats of the blind) she sees three men loading luggage on a plane. Closing up, we realize they’re hissing aboard huge African artifacts, some looking like statues, some like lintels, architraves, perhaps pieces of a temple. Where are those going? We don’t know, but the airport must be in a large town, probably the capital, and the plane isn’t small. There are chances the booty is leaving the continent. So the idea of a lingering post-colonial pillage is there.
One of the three men is Protée, looking almost the same as before. Change between 22 and 42, let’s say, isn’t as dramatic as, let’s say, between 7 and 27. France has hit another era of her life, but Protée is out of time. Look! Immortal. Though, he is an entirely other Protée as far as loquacity has replaced his adamant muteness. This Protée, relaxed, spontaneous in the company of his colleagues, never stops talking. Animatedly, and accompanying his words with vivacious gestures. We have seen Protée at ease during the flashback, in brief lapses, sometimes when interacting with France, always with his people and pairs. But we have seen him mostly invested in his duty, sealed up by impassibility and silence. His body so controlled, as we said, that the impromptu gesture detonated like a gunshot. Now his motions fill the screen with beautiful arabesques. He is telling a story we don’t know. A good story.
So this is Protée unburdened of the armor he previously had to wear. Protée with his pals, breathing freely, his back turned to the viewer, donning a yellow raincoat under sudden rain so strong and so fresh, we can almost smell it, facing an expanse of verdant immensity.
In a way, he visually escapes. He has escaped.
In another way, after twenty years, he still wears a work uniform. Perhaps he always will. With all of his brightness, wisdom, skills, capacity, he’s still, though a free man, carrying and loading stuff he doesn’t own for someone who probably exploits him. Again, there’s a message of little change, little hope, perhaps slightly overdone. Perhaps slightly arbitrary, a bit awkward.
The entire scene feels awkward. On deeper reflection, it’s the “shower” again, transposed into the present. That’s what the gush of rain stands for, does it? Again, the look cast over Protée’s life violates his privacy. It is stolen. He doesn’t know he’s watched. France, literally, lifts the blind. We don’t know if from a distance she recognizes him, but we do. Are we allowed to? The entire scene feels stolen, like the looted artifacts pushed up the ramp of the plane.
About the Author: Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. Born in Rome, living in Los Angeles, she is an artist, musician and dancer. She is the author of Other Maidens (BlazeVOX, 2020), An Alphabet of Birds (Moonrise Press, 2020), In Her Terms (Cholla Needles Press, 2021), Pages of a Broken Diary (Psky’s Porch, 2022) and Alter Alter (Elyssar Press, 2022).