(director/writer: Claire Denis; screenwriter: Jean-Pol Fargeau; cinematographer: Robert Alazraki; editors: Monica Coleman/ Claudine Merlin/Sylvie Quester; music: Abdullah Ibrahim; cast: Isaach De Bankolé (Protée), Giulia Boschi (Aimée Dalens), François Cluzet (Marc Dalens), Cécile Ducasse (France as a girl), Mireille Perrier (France as an adult), Jean-Claude Adelin (Luc Segalen), Laurent Arnal (Machinard), Jean Bediebe (Prosper), Jean-Quentin Châtelain (Courbassol), Jacques Denis (Joseph Delpich), Emmanuelle Chaulet (Mireille Machinard), Kenneth Cranham (Boothby), Didier Flamand (Capt. Védrine), Emmet Judson Williamson (Mungo Park), Donatus Ngala (Enoch, house chef); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alain Belmondo/Gérard Crosnier; New Yorker Films; 1988-France/West Germany/Cameroon-in French with English subtitles)

A brilliantly accomplished low-budget childhood drama shot on location in West Africa.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Claire Denis’ (” I Can’t Sleep”/”Beau Travail”) first feature is a brilliantly accomplished low-budget childhood drama shot on location in West Africa. It serves as a well-observed fictionalized semi-autobiographical account of the director’s own experiences with the effects of racism (Denis was born in Paris but spent much of her childhood in Africa, where her father served as a government official). The beauty of the film is in how discriminating it is in capturing the unspoken longings of the natives, the invisible but real line of separation between the races (using the mise-en-scène of the civilized whites dining and showering in private, while the primitive natives eat and shower in public) and by its powerful visuals that reflect the overall oppressive and repressive mood that prevailed in French colonialism.

It opens with a white French woman, France Dalens (Mireille Perrier), who is in her late twenties, returning to Cameroon where she grew up as a child in the 1950s and after spending some beach time gets a lift to town from an American black man, Mungo Park, who has emigrated to Africa to rediscover his roots and mistakes her for a tourist slumming. Later he gives her a ride to her childhood house and she stares out the window and goes into a long flashback of the time she was an eight-year-old (Cécile Ducasse) living in a colonial outpost far from the city. She pictures the remote area where she was raised by her kindly workaholic French district governor of West Africa father, Marc Dalens (François Cluzet), and her stern but caring mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi), and the special relationship she had with the trusted houseboy Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). All the time, she readily accepted the social order of the whites as masters and the blacks as servants. The idyllic mood of her childhood is broken when a small passenger plane develops engine trouble and crash lands, and her father has to house the various colonialist crew and passengers for a long time while they wait to get spare parts and build a runway. There’s the pilot Captain Védrine (Didier Flamand), co-pilot Courbassol (Jean-Quentin Châtelain), a wretched racist white coffee plantation owner (Jacques Denis) who has a black concubine, and a dullish racist newlywed couple (Laurent Arnal & Emmanuelle Chaulet) on their first visit to Africa where he’s assigned a government post. To help build the runway, the most strange and wretched one of them all, is a white ex-priest named Luc Segalen (Jean-Claude Adelin) doing a Rousseau-like idealistic trip as he passes himself off as a saint going native while his heart is filled with contempt for the blacks as he spreads discord by his mere presence. It’s because of Luc’s vile tongue that the close relationship between the noble Protée and the curious France ends, that the sexual tension that exists between Protée and Aimée is exposed in the open before the other servants and Luc’s discomfort with the whites and rejection by the blacks also signals that the time is drawing near when Cameroon will be independent from the racist colonizers. When the film comes out of flashback, the adult France shows Mungo her burned palms she received in her last childhood contact with Protée, as Mungo views them to read her fortune and exclaims that she’s “someone with no past and no future.” Since the lead character is named France, it’s obvious the heroine becomes a stand-in for what Denis was trying to get across that the time has come and gone for France (the country) to have a role in Africa.

All the performances are strong but the performances by De Bankolé and Ducasse are especially strong and moving. The location shots of this exotic place are stunning. The score by Abdullah Ibrahim superbly picks up the underlying tension between the races. Meanwhile Denis maintains a dry wit in this tasteful and intelligent drama, and seems to be telling us that the gulf between the races in modern times certainly takes a different form from the past but is, nevertheless, still very wide.