Unpredictable Nature of the River (International: English title)
The director Bernard Giraudeau (also actor and scriptwriter) depicts a multifarious Africa: romantic, sensual, bountiful versus the darker, murkier realities of plunder by the French empire, slavery and internal raids by Africans, themselves, for the capture of slaves. Jean-François de La Plaine (played by B. Giraudeau), the protagonist, will go into exile twice (from his aristocratic life in France to Cap St Louis, Senegal, after a duel for his mistress and back to France where the Monarchy has fallen to give way to a Republican government), each time with nostalgia and the sadness of leaving behind people he loves deeply.
The film depicts the life of several other fascinating characters: the Commandant de Blanet and Pierre Combaud who feel real affection for African life and its mores; Anne Brisseau, the sensuous Mulatto woman and slave-owner; Amélie, former slave and love of Jean-François de La Plaine, Governor of Cap St Louis; King Moktar, the Mauritanian powerful slave-owner and trader; and Abbé Fleuriau, entrusted with "the white man's burden" but endowed with tolerance and respect for Africans.
The narrative structure of the film is non-linear, punctuated by flash-backs (the son of Jean-François de La Plaine, recounting the main events of his father's life) and the epistolary relation between Jean-François de La Plaine and Louise, his French mistress, giving him news about the socio-political life in France. Bernard Giraudeau was inspired by the book, Chevalier de Boufflers, Lettres d'Afrique à Madame de Sabran (Arles: Actes Sud, 1998), written in epistolary form. A parallel story-telling is, thus, set into motion, outlining a French society on the eve of the French Revolution and delineating the secluded life of Jean-François de La Plaine in Cap St Louis which contrasts with the horrors of slave capture and trade.
The relationship to the Other
The aristocratic soirée at the beginning of the film is very significant in that it shows how a black boy is exploited: while all the other white children are sleeping, he is forced to hold the candle and once he drifts off to sleep, he is rudely awakened. Being black, he is subservient to the needs and whims of his masters. The Black is an ideological construct of the white man's imagination: the Other, believed to be inferior, mentally retarded, despotic and to indulge in bestial sexuality... These biased ideas, in a world where slavery goes unquestioned in the aristocratic milieu, are deeply ingrained and therefore shared, almost naturally, by Jean-François de La Plaine.
Once at Cap St Louis, he shows his open scorn of Blacks, especially when he visits the "hospital" and when on the ship, he is unable to trust the know-how of the black captain concerning the navigable tides of the river. However, gradually, his attitude will change as he observes the genuine affection that Pierre Combaud (Thierry Frémont) has for the black children and learns that the Commandant de Blanet (played by Richard Bohringer who, after the film, opts to become a Senegalese citizen) plans to stay in Africa as he loves his black wife.
But his relationship with Amélie (Aïssatou Sow) will definitely wash away his prejudices. When he first receives her as a "gift" from King Moktar, he plans to get her educated to be sent to entertain Louise, then adopts her as "daughter" before becoming her lover. The film charts the change in Jean-François de La Plaine who becomes more humane and is revolted by the slave-trade.
The notion of hybridity
Anne Brisseau (France Zobda), the sensual Mulatto woman, is very much attached to the fact that she is of mixed origins and not black - she reminds this constantly to Jean-François de La Plaine during their love affair. She is a wealthy woman and has, absolutely, no qualms about having slaves and trading them.
The son of Jean-François de La Plaine and Amélie, a Mulatto, embodies the hope for a better world at the end of the film; his father considers him as "a citizen of the world", heir of two different cultures and social backgrounds and the promise of more tolerance.
The notion of hybridity, also, transpires through the exquisite music of René-Marc Bini: a sensuous intermingling of Bach and other European and African classical music.
Religion and slave-trade
Abbé Fleuriau is the counterpart of the Christian missionaries who would convert Africans by force and bring "light to the dark continent": he is easy-going, takes life on the good side and has "africanised" his vision of religion.
However, this masks the grim historical reality: the Church had ratified slave-trade. In the early 16th century, with the discovery of America, the Christian dignitary of the Church, Bartolomé de Las Casas, while defending the Red Indians, suggested that Blacks could be used as labour in the New World.
The Church had to take positions and justified slavery upon the argument that Blacks had no souls, they could only buy their redemption through work, conversion to Christianity and absolute respect to their white master.
The tumults of history
Les Caprices d'un fleuve (Unpredictable Nature of the River) portrays not only the vagaries of the river, Sénégal, but the tumults of life, itself and those of History. The French Revolution and its aftermath and the colonial enterprise of the French empire concerning the "triangular trade" (merchant ships coming from Europe, stopping on the African coast to "buy" or trade for slaves, travelling to the Caribbean region or to the American continent to sell the contingent of slaves and going back to Europe with produce such as sugar and rum) constitute the major historical happenings.
However, Jean-François de La Plaine also discusses about the intellectual trends of the moment, quoting the ideologies of the well-known writers of the Enlightment period, debates about a libertine way of life and the status of women. Science is also progressing and this is demonstrated by Pierre Combaud making an experiment with a fire-balloon.
The characters seem caught up in the throes of a rapidly changing world.
Savrina P. CHINIEN