Christian Lara | Bitter Sugar

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Christian Lara

Bitter Sugar

Bitter Sugar (1997) is one of the more inventive films of recent years. It has an intelligent and complex subject: the history of slavery in the Caribbean, especially in the French and English island of Guadeloupe. This subject is of real historical significance. It is one that still resonates today. The film contrasts the high ideals of liberty and equality expressed by the French Revolution and Napoleon, with the horrible reality of slavery. This is a subject that applies to the United States as well, a country whose democratic ideals were in direct conflict with its use of slavery throughout its first eighty years.

During the late 1990's, there was a major interest in making films about slavery. Such diverse directors' films as Charles Burnett's Nightjohn (1995), James Ivory's Jefferson in Paris (1995) and Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) looked at the subject. One suspects that this was related to the rise of right wing racism during this period, which often made bizarre claims about the institution of slavery. Such films were an attempt to set the historical record straight. The subject touched a nerve: both Ivory and Spielberg got some of the only negative reviews they have ever had throughout their career. It is clear that many white people in North America are still in deep denial on this subject.

While Bitter Sugar tells an easy to follow story, it is also an experimental film. Characters from the 1810's mix with those from other eras, including our own. Everybody meets in the giant court room drama that is the basic framework of the movie. This film's mix of modern and historical characters has several antecedents. One recalls La Nuit de Varennes (1982), the 1950's TV show You Are There, Steve Allen's TV show The Meeting of the Minds, and the TV documentaries where Peter Ustinov, in character as various historical figures, was interviewed by contemporary newsmen.

The story line includes both fact and drama, both political insight and courtroom theatrics. It also flashes back at will to events from the past. The film has a gleeful mix of narrative events. Both its delirious chronology and it inventive narrative approach recall the avant-garde films of Alain Resnais. Its cheerful anachronism also recalls the historical dramas of Ken Russell. However, the film is a bit more grounded and less avant-garde than either of these two masters.

The color design in Bitter Sugar endlessly echoes the colors of the French Revolution: blue, red and white. These are also the colors of the character's French uniforms. This gives a meaningful look to the color throughout the film.