On the eve of the bicentenary commemoration of the 1804 Haitian revolution, Royal Bonbon comes as an important and enlightening (but admittedly demanding) reflection. Indeed nothing is given in this difficult and highly verbose film, in which the memory of a complex and terrible history – that of a country that preceded all others, but which seems incapable of getting over its tragic neurosis – replaces any immediate action.
Haitian culture, which is deeply impregnated with voodoo, recalls the old opposition between the supernatural and the fantastic. Whilst the latter manifests the modern integration of technological progress, the supernatural – already developed in the Middle Ages – dreams reality in order to grasp and accept its complexities. A man roams through Cape Haitian’s iron market building in the present, claiming to be Roi Christophe, a former slave and Haiti’s liberator, who reigned over the north of the island from 1811 to 1820. This mad hero takes us back to the roots of History, to the ochre-coloured remains of Christophe’s chateau, imbued with the rust of time and a raw light that are emblematic of the poverty of a country on its knees despite the grandeur of its past.
That is what Najman sets out to explore, rather than the master-slave dialectic that Aimé Césaire examines in La Tragédie du Roi Christophe. Henri Christophe, the first sovereign of the New World, lost no time in recreating nobility and a court that were exactly like the former colonial masters. He lost no time either in becoming a bloodthirsty despot and a sad caricature of the former regime. But where Césaire denounces the post-colonial trap of the ruling elite’s mimetism vis-à-vis the « civilised » world, Najman centres his « Roi Chacha » (as he is nicknamed) on lack, on the terrible, ever-present void in this broken country. Constantly toing and froing in a chaotic montage between the past and reality, between the dream of emancipation and the dictator’s cruelty, Roi Chacha, admirably played by Dominique Batraville, puts his excessiveness at the service of a collective therapy. Through him, Najman paints the portrait of the narrow and obsessive relationship between the grandeur of the past and this ineffective supernatural, this dream of reality which stops people from confronting it face on, so that it ends up being deadly, just like this king who commits suicide after a popular uprising plunges him into abandonment and isolation. The vicissitudes of Haitian history thus punctuate the film like timeless gargoyles. These episodes theatrically succeed one another in sketches enacted in the ruined chateau, set to an often-lyrical music.
Christophe’s court, comprised of peasant farmers with baroque names, both disrupts and accentuates this theatricalness, creating both distance and mise-en-scène. The final suicide and funeral suggest the impasse of an endlessly repeated neurosis perpetuated by the players themselves. It brings to mind Amos Gitaï’s Kedma, which suggests that the Jewish people end up recycling their pain as a way of life, forging an inability to live without endlessly generating it. Similarly, the Haitian people never stop dreaming of a grandeur that came from resisting the coloniser (present in the film in songs, the fugitive slaves, and references to revolts and armed struggles) without managing to end to its isolation in order to found a new relation to power and the world. The insular solitude generated by this difficulty in imagining itself within the bounds of normality, or mondiality even, apparently hamper the vital quest for the father incarnated by the child Timothée. Faced with political and social turpitude, the child opens the doors of mythology, the imaginary paradoxically remaining a sacred way out of the neurosis. Najman thus calls on both art and rituals to prefigure a brighter future, in touch with Haiti’s extraordinary artistic and spiritual flourishing that he documented in his previous films.
Winner of the Jean Vigo prize in 2002, Royal Bonbon is thus a demanding, rich, exhausting and captivating film!
2002, 85 min, 35 mm colour, French and Créole, cinematography: José Deshaies; editing: Lise Beaulieu; music: Jean-François Pauvros; starring: Dominique Batraville (the King), Verlus Delorme (Timothée), Ambroise Thomson (Valentin), Anne-Louise Mesadieu (the Queen); Erol Josué (Nibo-romaine). Prod. Les Films du Requin (France), les Films de l’Isle (Canada). Distrib. Gemini Films. Original soundtrack available on CD, Budha Musique.///Article N° : 5694