On her way to visit her childhood home in a colonial outpost in Northern Cameroon, a young French woman recalls her childhood, her memories concentrating on her family's houseboy.
Whilst cinematic conventions imply that Chocolat comprises the protagonist's childhood recollections, the story concerns events the young girl could not have known, or, in Roger Ebert's words, "could have understood only imperfectly," not dissimilar to Terrence Mallick's Days of Heaven (1978). Sophie Monks Kaufman's article in Little White Lies is particularly good, noting that Aimée is "as beautiful as she is strategically cold" and that "the contrasting natural beauty makes the human dealings seem all the more stark and disturbing: there is Joseph, a coffee planter whose relationship with his black female servant is elliptically conveyed for what it is." Joseph is the most offensively racist of the group of newcomers, yet it slowly emerges that he may not be the 'most' racist (if such an ordering is possible) and that his views could be something of a performance. Yet:
Each of Chocolat's most powerful and revealing moments are driven by physical acts from Protée, which function as twists because his character is established as impassive before his oppressors.
Melissa Anderson makes some similar points on Chocolat's ellipticality in her retrospective of the film in Village Voice, noting that "the woman, named France […] is the film’s sole instance of an overdetermined signifier." (Protée's name, on the other hand, is the French equivalent of 'Proteus', the god of elusive sea change.) Indeed, Melissa is good on background:
The title of Denis’s movie, as she explained in interviews during Chocolat‘s initial release, is Fifties slang meaning “to be had, to be cheated,” and specifically “to be black and to be cheated.”
… yet she is also observant of the power dynamics:
France and Protée are so close that she can always solve the gnomic riddles he poses to her; so deeply does she trust him that she doesn’t hesitate to eat a piece of buttered bread that he has sprinkled with ants. Yet this affection is always on the verge of being poisoned by an incongruous balance of power, as when tiny France, her hair arranged in perfect plaits and sitting astride an equally wee donkey, imperiously barks at Protée, “We have to go now!” in front of a large crowd of Cameroonian schoolchildren, who then taunt him with the same words. Filled with irresolvable feelings for her servant, Aimée wields her authority over him more treacherously.
Prefiguring Denis' dance-influenced Beau Travail (1999), Hal Hilson observed in his contemporary review that some scenes are "like a passage from [ballet choreographer] Balanchine," and that:
In one scene, the whites go in search of a doctor for a guest suffering an epileptic seizure, and the shot in which a crowd of blacks emerges sheepishly from a church into the high-beamed glare of car headlights tells us everything we need to know about the coming revolts.
Hal gets something right about the particular kind of sexual tension:
The erotic tension between Aimée and Protée is the hidden catalyst that exposes the corruption in the arrangement between the races. Sex isn't the crime, it's the secret that exposes it.
Still, why does our protagonist return in 'present day' 1988? "In some peculiar, not entirely explicable way, the movie is a kind of mystery, with France returning to Cameroon as if to the scene of some primal crime." Hal's own suggestion is that, "As a grown-up woman, France seems haunted by Protée, and her return seems almost like an attempt to exorcise him and reclaim herself." The term 'mystery' might definitely be the right one, especially because the 'key' to the film, if there even is one, is an event that France could not possibly have witnessed. Is this partly her memories?
Not everyone was as taken by the film, however. Sheila Benson wrote in the Los Angeles Times that:
By denying her black central character, Protée, any outlet for the sexual rage and humiliation building up in him, instead of the statement Denis imagines she is making, she actually takes away his humanity. He becomes ennobled, pure and beautiful as a living statue and as objectified.
Whether you agree with this interpretation or not (personally, I see some merit in this argument), Sheila is definitely correct in that: "Anyone with a good memory for the ‘70s will recognize [ex-seminarian] Segalen; he’s a variation on the earnest young Americans who became more Indian than the Navajos; more peaceable than Gandhi."
[Chocolat] refuses to present a reality in which characters are polarized as either good or bad, oppressor or victim; instead it dramatizes colonial relationships as complex, ambiguous and intricate.
— Fiona Villella (Postcolonial Cinema)
The extended shots of a silent landscape run parallel to the silence shared by Protée and France, both culturally disempowered subjects – France as a child; Protée as an African servant. Silence is a powerful tool as it allies France and Protée in a mutual position of astute observation.
— Diana Sandars (Senses of Cinema)
First singing a low, rhythmic melody in tune with his stride, Protée suddenly interrupts the chant with a loud torrent of untranslated speech that most viewers cannot understand. His voice, raised in anger, seems to be a protest—but against what or whom, exactly? […] Suddenly, Protée “the silent servant we think we know,” turns into Protée the “speaking subject we do not know”.
— Janice Morgan (The Spatial Politics of Racial and Cultural Identity in Claire Denis' Chocolat)
France’s father explains to the girl what the horizon is: a line that is seen but that is not there. A that is not real but that cannot be crossed. The line of the horizon is the line of race. It can be approached, but the goal recedes as one approaches it. Not real but ever present. This film does not attempt to account for the color line or its violators. But we are always aware of its presence as a horizon that envelops all. [Chocolat is interesting to the historian because] it makes problematic any notion of an easy, direct connection to the past.
— Michael Roth (Film Reviews: Africa in American Historical Review)