Thursday, December 6, 2007

the role of the couple in Coup de Foudre and Chocolat

While the films Coup de Foudre (Diane Kurys) and Chocolat (Claire Denis) approach their subject matter very differently, similar themes are dealt with in both. They are both period pieces, but of a biographical nature rather than glossy epics. Both are domestically oriented tales which feature characters who appear to be struggling with repressed desires to overcome modes of behaviour imposed by 'civilised' society in order to satisfy the primary needs of sexuality and emotional comfort. Each film also discusses and deconstructs a different sexual stereotype - the stereotyped exotic sexuality of the black African in Chocolat, and the filmic exploitation of lesbian relationships in Coup de Foudre. Both films present characters who are challenged with stereotyped roles and taboos. Through these challenges we are offered a new look at the conception of "the couple," although neither relationship is fulfilled physically. These debateably adulterous relationships provide a critique of marriage as an institution, and the gender roles traditionally implied therein. This examination of marital dissolution extends to the implications of family. The children in both films are used as neutral observers, or an embodiment of 'uncivilised' human nature.

Coup de Foudre (also called Entre Nous) chronicles the relationship between two married women. Both Lena and Madeleine are in marriages that are emotionally unfulfilling. When they meet, they are automatically drawn to one another, and immediately begin spending a lot of time together. In each other they find a friendship that is ambiguously defined, so that it might be construed as a lesbian, albeit unconsummated, relationship. The two women make plans to leave their families and start anew in another city. With Chocolat,we are presented a marriage that is both cold and literally distant. The film is centred around a family living in colonial Cameroon. The father of the family, Marc, holds a position with the colonial administration which frequently takes him away from his family. His wife, Aimee, and young daughter, France, are left in the care of a black male servant, Protee, who assumes the role of protector of the family. His name, taken from the Greek god Proteus, is very fitting for his role as the protector. France spends much of her time with Protee, who teaches her about his culture and plays games with her. Aimee, also, has an attraction to Protee that extends beyond his role as her servant to an unfulfilled sexual desire.

None of the female characters in either film actually go so far as to commit the act of adultery, but if the term is expanded t
o include emotional infidelities, then all three women could be considered 'guilty.' Lena and Madeleine do not pursue a sexual relationship with one another, but they find in each other the emotional support that is lacking in their relationships with their husbands. This straying of commitment and attention towards their husbands, and, by extension, their families, is exemplified when Lena's young daughter is lost in an outing in which Lena and Madeleine discuss their business venture and escape. Rather than caring for their child, which is the basic role of the mother, they are indulging themselves in their own 'selfish' dreams of opening a store together. In Chocolat, Aimee is more clearly unfaithful in her final expression of physical desire for Protee. In an understated but emotionally intense scene, Aimee sits on the floor in the dark, and rubs Protee's leg. With dignity, and almost violence, Protee rejects her advance. And so the adultery is not consummated in this film either, but the intent is explicit. So, even though there is technically no adultery in this film, there is a mental infidelity.

Generally, it is men who are portrayed as adulterous
, and this is not always shown to be negative. There is also a tendency in films, though, for females to be portrayed as deceitful and adulterous. Women in films are often fetishized, and shown as sexual objects, but by the same token are punished for their sexuality. Both of these films subvert that stereotype to some extent. With Lena and Madeleine, we forgive them their emotional infidelities because we feel empathy for their cold marriages. Seeing how unhappy they are with their husbands, we are unable to begrudge them the happiness they find with each other, particularly when they commit no overt acts of adultery. In Chocolat, Protee is shown as replacing Marc as the protector of the family. France is closer to him than to her own father, and chooses his company over that of her parents'. Beyond his role as a care-giving servant, Protee is also ordered to protect the women from the wild hyenas that terrify Aimee, in no less than the private sphere of her bedroom. This comfort derived from Protee is compounded with, and serves to reinforce, Aimee's sexual desire for him. We see her repress this desire for the majority of the film, and watch her restraint crumble into the almost innocent and child-like touch. She seems broken as she sits prostrate on the floor; she seems sincere in her feeling of guilt. Her restraint until that point is admirable and so we are inclined to believe that she honestly cannot control her physical and perhaps emotional need for this man. Since she has tried to hard to combat her desire, and seems genuine about her moral standing, Aimee, also, is forgiven. The compulsion of the audience to empathize with the desires of these characters negates the image of the deceptive 'whore.'

These borderline adulterous relationships are also subv
ersive when taken out of the context of an unfaithful marriage. The ambiguous portrayal of Lena and Madeleine's friendship, and hints at lesbianism are quite taboo, particularly when considering the time period chosen for the story. Not only is woman's reliance on man for fulfillment questioned, but the approach taken in portraying the friendship acts to subvert the conventional male gaze. Many films, and other facets of society, exploit lesbian sexuality. It is desired by heterosexual males, and used as a 'turn-on.' Kurys eliminates the sexual aspect of the lesbian relationship, leaving the emotional 'friendship' to be discussed, and taken more seriously. Since the relationship is never taken to that sexual level, the male gaze is not gratified with imagery of lesbian eroticism. The idea of non-sexual life partners, or the valuing of friendship over marriage, is also, in itself, a nontraditional look at the idea of the couple as a lifestyle choice. As Phil Powrie examines in his article on the film: "...this also seems to be the point of the scene in the nightclub, where the two women decide not to follow up on a possible encounter with two men who have been watching them dance. The two women leave arm in arm, Lena saying that she did not feel like it because 'he had a skinny bottom.' Again, the possibility of heterosexual exchange is contrasted with non-sexual female intimacy." The idea of female friendship is also a bit of a departure from many films, which ofte portray women as 'catty' and backstabbing. Lena and Madeleine are entirely supportive of each other.

The desire to transcend social constructs is presented in Denis' film. Just as forbidden as homosexuality, or perhaps even more so, is the desire between a white woman of high standing and her black servant, particularly in a colonial setting. There is also a negative stereotype of black, and specifically African, peoples being promiscuously sexual beings. This stereotype also is denied here with Protee's dignified refusal of Aimee. Here the male gaze is subverted, as well, but in perhaps a less positive way. The female body is not fetishized, but here it is the male body. Protee's body is emphasized in many shots, most obviously shown showering in the open, his body left open to this now female gaze. This can be seen as a response to the male gaze, but the danger is that it is simply a role reversal.

The combination of thee ideas of a justified or sympathetic infidelity, and the desire for sexual and emotional satisfaction over the proprieties of marriage, provide a critique of marriage itself. We see seemingly good, happy families that are cold and distant, and we almost root for these women to cheat on their husbands. With the presentation of these issues we are led, as an audience, to question the validity of the matrimonial institution. In both of these films, marriages serves to keep the women domesticated, dependent and unhappy. In relationships that are somehow forbidden to them, they either find or seek what is lacking in their own households. This would lead us to believe that marriage is not the redeeming, sanctimonious ideal that previous generations seemed to hold as true. On the other hand, they do not provide unrealistically positive alternatives. Aimee's advances are adulterous, and would have had negative ramifications for her family. Lena and Madeleine have a positive relationship, but it still has a negative impact on the children., This shows more of an exploration into the roles, rather than a simple reversal.

Often, issues like this are examined in stories with the nature of parables, They are simplified, with complicating factors extracted so that they might be considered elementally. Here, though, in these two films, the additional complication of children is introduced to these marriages. Not only are we looking at the institution of marriage, but also the effect that its critique has on the family. In a way, this has been simplified, though. The children are all rather neutral, they seem not to 'take sides' with their parents. Neither the children in Coup de Foudre, nor France in Chocolat seem to be overly aware of the discomfort of their parents' marriages. They take everything in, but it is impossible to see what they make of it, or precisely how it affects them. This, then, becomes a problem more for their mothers, particularly in Coup de Foudre, and it is a question of guilt. Just as we, the audience, do not know how the children are really responding to their family situations, so, too, do the mothers wonder.

It is interesting, too, to consider that these are period pieces with "progressive" themes. Why would a filmmaker with a forward thinking agenda decide to place their story in the past? This play with time perhaps reinforces the messages being relayed. Being citizens of our own time, when presented with models of the past, we cannot help but judge them against the ideas of contemporary society. So, then, to watch a film which features characters or situations that are considered progressive, such as Coup de Foudre, we must ask why characters from the past still appear modern to contemporary audiences. Have we really not progressed as far as we like to think? On the other hand, a film like Chocolat reminds of some negative roots, such as colonialism and domestication of women, which are no doubt still haunting current society. To solve today's problems, we must examine yesterday's decisions.

While both of these films are set in different times and places, and deal with different matters, they examine many similar principles, namely an investigation into the validity of marriage as an institution. Using examples of infidelity, and looking carefully at its effect on the family, these films show us marriages that embody the opposite of what a marriage is meant to be. Both films subvert the stereotype of woman as being an inherently deceptive and adulterous creature by taking a humanistic view of situations that might lead someone to an infidelity. The relationships in question in each of these films is taboo not only in its adulterous nature, but also on their own - the one examining interracial 'couples,' and the other looking at, or at least hinting at, homosexuality. Children are used in both films, both as the storytellers, and as observers who remain in the background. Finally, both films are set in the past, but deal with issues that are still relevant to contemporary audiences.

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