Nostalgia and colonialism in french cinema of the 1980s

Nostalgia and colonialism in french cinema of the 1980s

Yuri Sebastiao March 19, 2009 Nostalgia and the Treatment of Colonialism in French Films of the 1980s Defined by Phil Powrie as « an escape from reality and the attempt to return to a presupposed golden age », nostalgia was alongside the crisis of masculinity one of the major features and influences of French cinema in the 1980s. A type of film considered by Powrie to be nostalgic is the « colonial » film, which as the title suggests deals with France? s colonial history overseas. According to the writer, colonial films are strongly nostalgic since they focus on the loss of a lifestyle associated with France? imperial power. Two notable examples of this type of film are Bertrand Tavernier? s Coup de Torchon (1981) and Claire Denis? Chocolat (1988), both of which explore the theme of French colonialism in Africa. Despite sharing similarities that are in general associated to the fact that their stories take place in colonial times, the two films are in essence very distinct. The most important similarity between the two is the fact that both are filmed on location in former French colonies of West Africa. Tavernier? Coup de Torchon is a film-noir stylized, and often jocose story of a

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French police chief in a small Senegalese town where laws and morals are seldom considered. Whereas Denis? Chocolat is the story of France, a woman who upon her return to Cameroon, reminisces about her childhood days in the northern part of the country, where her father was a French colonial administrator. Although the two films provide a general picture of colonialism that is relatively consensual, they differ in the approach and in the level of emphasis given to the theme.

This is partly due to the fact that one is sort of a comedy and the other is a drama with an autobiographical tone. The two films also differ in the level of nostalgia evoked, due to elements that can be associated with the genre of each. This analysis aims to explore the contrasting ways in which Coup de Torchon and Chocolat portray colonialism, within the context of nostalgia, and discuss how some characters in each film work to provide a medium of comparison between the two films.

Despite being one of the main themes of discussion in Coup de Torchon, colonialism per se is not necessarily part of the story. In its place, the dynamics of public relations in a non egalitarian, racist society (such as the colonial society of the film) should be coined has integral part of the story. One possible reason for this is the fact that the film is an adaptation of Jim Thompson? s 1964 book Pop. 1280. In this book, the protagonist is a corrupt Sheriff of a small town in the American south of 1910, where racial relations (namely racism) re comparable to the culture of the Senegalese village in the movie. The original story is thus modified to take place in an African colony, which the French audience can relate to. This adaptation proves to be an intelligent one since, as Michael Hoffman points out in his essay, the first Black slaves in America came from West Africa (http://www. criterion. com/current/posts/2). It also proves to be convenient in that the French police chief in this Senegalese town of the 1930s would probably have the same autonomy, and be able to get away with similar antics as the small town sheriff of Pop. 280. Accordingly, the « hero » of Coup de Torchon, uses his condition as the sole law enforcer of his town wisely but deceitfully. Lucien Cordier is depicted initially as a mockable character whose wife cheats on overtly. He is often ridiculed by two local white pimps who bribe him periodically, to overlook their infractions. For instance, in one scene the two pimps practice shooting at dead bodies of black natives that float on a river, victimized by a dysentery epidemic. When Lucien approaches them they not only negotiate a price to pay him off but they also insist that he must take a shot.

The police chief allows another colonial, Marcaillou, to get away with impunity when he beats his wife in public, and again when he beats a black native, Vendredi, with a board at a local market. One day he decides to « clean up » the scum of the town and he starts punishing all of those who commit evil deeds by killing them. He shoots the two pimps first, then Marcaillou, and finally Vendredi, alleging that he is being punished for his submissiveness to the Whites. He also manages to orchestrate the shooting of his cheating wife and her lover by Rose, who is Marcaillou? widow and also one of his mistresses. Throughout the film, the characters are often shown walking outdoors and the audience is presented with eyeful pictures of life in the town. The audience is also able to get an idea of the type of interactions that go on between the natives and the colonials, who usually run businesses and occupy most positions of power; whereas the natives do manual labor and take care of domestic tasks, such as cooking for, or even fanning the colonials.

Almost all characters important to the story are white colonials who despite never discussing colonialism, often discuss about racial differences and their views on the blacks. Some characters such as the pimps and Marcaillou disrespect the natives with actions and words, others don? t acknowledge the presence of the natives unless they are needed, and a few others such as a female school teacher show kindness to the Blacks. Lucien himself is shown using the derogatory term egre to refer to Blacks when he engages in a conversation with one of his superior officials in a nearby city, although he never expresses racist views on the natives. All in all, Coup de Torchon is not very nostalgic and it seems like it could had taken place in any other location that meets the conditions discussed above. Nevertheless, the viewer is able to get a picture of life in Senegal during colonial times—which is free and fruitful for the colonials, but limited for the natives. Contrastingly, Denis? Chocolat addresses colonialism in a more direct way than Tavernier? s Coup de Torchon.

The protagonist of Chocolat is a woman named France who remembers her childhood days in north Cameroon upon her return to that nation. The story is told in autobiographical style and the audience is introduced to the young France a few minutes into the film through a clever transition. The adult France is riding in a car with a kind man, who she takes for a native, after he offers to give her a lift. As she looks through the window at the dense green forest, the sight changes into an arid brown savanna through which the young France is riding in a truck with her parents, and their servant, Protee.

Right away the audience is exposed to the complicity that exists between Protee and France as he picks up a few ants from the ground to feed her along with the sandwich she has. Protee teaches France practical things, carries her on his shoulders, and sometimes plays with her as if he was a child like her. However, despite the friendship that he nurtures for France, Protee is constantly reminded of the existing social boundary that exists between the natives and the colonials. For instance, during meals Protee has to wait standing up behind France while she eats at the dinner table.

One character among the colonials, however, stands out by displaying a different type of interaction with the Blacks. Luc Segalen is a drifter who is invited to stay with France? s family by her father, and who develops a certain animosity towards Protee. He is first shown as the only White working among the Blacks which suggests that he has sympathy for the natives. Nonetheless, the audience is soon led to doubt his sympathy since he never gives up the assets that are available to him as a white colonial.

For example, one moment he is shown eating at the table with France? s family and in the other he is shown eating outdoors with the Blacks in the servants’ area. In another scene he calls a local doctor a dirty negre in order to mock the colonials, but he shows no remorse in humiliating him in front of the colonials and the servants. Later on he laughs at the scene along with France? s father who admits to him that one day « they » might be dismissed from that country (a reference to their condition as colonials).

Luc is the only character who crosses the social line established between the Whites and Blacks but he does so in a way that only benefits him. He finally leaves one night after starting a fight with Protee, and insulting him for being a submissive servant, which resembles the way Lucien Cordier criticizes Vendredi in Coup de Torchon before killing him. Protee on the other hand has a frustrated relationship with France? s mother, Aimee. Posterior to France? s father? s departure on a trip away from home, the audience is given hints that there is some sexual tension between Aimee and Protee.

Aimee is a beautiful woman and Protee is an attractive man who performs his task with plenty of dignity despite his subaltern position. In one of the most emotionally tense scenes between Protee and Aimee, she asks the servant to help her zip up her dress, and as he does it they stare at each other in front of the mirror, suggesting the repressed attraction they feel for each other. Still, it would be unthinkable for Protee as a black man to make a physical advance on Aimee for this would probably bring negative repercussions for him.

This is illustrated in a scene in which Protee is closing the doors to the house and Aimee happens to be seating on the floor next toone of the doors. He is standing up and she extends her arm to touch his ankle, Protee then kneels down towards her, caresses her briefly on the face, grabs her by the shoulders and makes her stand up abruptly, then simply walks away. The fact that she only touches him when she’s sitting on the floor is thus very symbolic of the lower stratum of Protee and other servants in the social hierarchy.

The racial boundary is exposed once again when Aimee, in clear discontent, convinces her husband to demote Protee from the position of house servant and confine him to work in the garage, an action that marks the end of Protee? s relationship with France and her family. In the final scenes, the adult France departs from Cameroon leaving the audience with a feeling of irresolution that is analogous to the nostalgic feeling the French were left with, at the end of colonialism in Africa.

In sum, Coup de Torchon and Chocolat share the common theme of colonialism but differ in the way they treat it. The former is an ambiguous comedy that does not address colonialism directly although it deals with racism, and whose nostalgia does not go beyond the fact that it takes place in a colonial society. Whereas the latter is a drama that treats colonialism and its unresolved relationships as one of its main themes, and which is full of nostalgia due to its autobiographical style.