Nostalgia and colonialism in french cinema of the 1980s

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Yuri Sebastião
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 benostalgic 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´s 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 thetheme 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´s Coup de Torchon is a film-noir stylized, and oftenjocose story of a 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 isrelatively 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 whichCoup 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, racistsociety (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) are comparable to the culture of the Senegalesevillage 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 ( It also proves to be convenient in that the French police chief in thisSenegalese 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.1280. 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 bytwo 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,...
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