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Women, Nostalgia, Memory: Chocolat, Outremer, and Indochine

From: Research in African Literatures
Volume 33, Number 2, Summer 2002
pp. 235-244 | 10.1353/ral.2002.0053

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Research in African Literatures 33.2 (2002) 235-244

Film Reviews

The explosion in theoretical and historical scholarship on empires and imperialist discourses in the last decade is one part of a worldwide movement to come to terms with the facts and fantasies of colonial domination in different historical and geographical contexts. In the case of France, such scholarship has been part of an attempt to reassess l'idée coloniale and to face the legacies of France's history as a colonial power. Indeed, it makes sense to refer to a syndrome d'empire analogous to the syndrome de Vichy so brilliantly analyzed by Henry Rousso. As Rousso did for the collective memory of Vichy, one can begin to chart different stages in the collective imagination of the former French empire since the independences. The current interest in theories and histories of empires is > one element of this larger story of the changing nature of the collective memory of empire.

In part, the story of the syndrome of empire is being written in French contemporary cinema, a site where problems of historical consciousness are worked out, and as such, as both reflective and constitutive of collective memory. This is the uneasy territory between reality and representation, where the mimetic qualities of cinema can be explored and cinema itself understood as "a social technology, a textual machine of representation" (De Lauretis 187). The goal is to perform a "symptomatic reading" (Andrew 133) of the contemporary idée (post)-coloniale through a study of French cinema from the post-colonial period.

The history of the idée coloniale in cinema has typically been written in terms of domination and resistance, dividing films that supported colonial ideology from those that criticized it (see Murray, Sherzer). Cinema played an important role in the elaboration of imperial propaganda as it did in its denunciation. Both Raoul Girardet and Charles-Robert Ageron have argued that film played an important role in shaping popular opinion of the colonies in France from the interwar period on. The concern of this paper is to examine the representation of overseas France in three French films from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the domination/resistance paradigm has lost its relevance, and there is a need for a critical re-evaluation of the representations of the colonies in film. Claire Denis's Chocolat (1988), Brigitte Roüan's Outremer (1990), and Régis Wargnier's Indochine (1991) all tell stories set in the colonies under French rule, all with white female protagonists. All three films introduce the question of gender into the portrayal of empire, a subject that has received considerable recent scholarly attention (see, for example, McClintock et al.). In addition, all of these films use memory—the remembering of the empire—as the central narrative process. Because they explore female voices, critics tend to understand them as post-colonial works that introduce fresh new perspectives on the colonial situation from a female point of view (see Philibert). Their attention to memory could represent, as Leela Gandhi has written about post-colonialism, "a theoretical resistance to the mystifying amnesia of the colonial aftermath [. . .] a disciplinary project devoted to the academic task of revisiting, remembering and, crucially, interrogating the colonial past" (4), and they could therefore be classified as critically, and not just chronologically, post-colonial. If, however, they use memory as nostalgia, which Webster's New World Dictionary (1958) defines as "homesickness, a longing to go back to one's home, home town or homeland" (1003), then these films could be seen as longing for the empire as a source of exoticism and lost authenticity (see, for example, Stoler and Cooper), and they would therefore continue the long French tradition of colonial cinema, albeit in a post-colonial era.

Despite the fact that these films explore "danger zones" of colonial domination, such as white women's sexuality and the brutal excesses of French rule, each in its own way reproduces the modalities of colonial discourse, in which the fact of colonial domination is normalized and even rendered desirable. To begin with, the feminine presences in the films, rather than devirilizing or destabilizing the colonial order, in fact reinforce...

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