Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Roshcdy Zem
Stars: Omar Sy, James Thieree, Clotilde Hesme, Olivier Gourmet, Noemie Lvovsky, Frederic Pierrot, Alice de Lencquesaing, Alec Pesces.
A hit at the recent French Film Festival, this entertaining and lavish low budget film from France is an exploration of the origins of comedy. In the late nineteenth century, vaudeville and the circus were the pioneers of physical comedy. This biopic charts the rise and fall of Rafael Padilla (played here by Omar Sy, from The Intouchables, etc), a former slave from Cuba who was the first black clown to grace the circus rings and stages of Paris in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s a story about which I knew little.
When we first meet Rafael, he is working at a circus as Kalanka, a wide-eyed cannibal from the wilds of Africa. His act catches the eye of veteran performer and own and out clown George Footit (played by James Thierree, who is the grandson of the legendary silent screen comic Charlie Chaplin). Footit convinces Chocolat to become part of his act and takes him under his wing. Their act is quite physical with acrobatics and slapstick humour, but it basically revolves around Footit kicking, hitting and generally humiliating Chocolat. The interracial comic duo become a huge success and soon leave behind their tired, provincial Circus Delvaux for the bright lights and glamour of Paris where their odd couple act becomes the main attraction at Nouveau Cirque for nearly two decades.
However, as the white man, Footit takes the large portion of their cut of profits, which begins to rankle and brings a sense of tension to their relationship. Rafael enjoys the trappings of their success, but he wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Briefly imprisoned as an illegal immigrant, after the bitter owner of the Circus Delvaux informs on him, Chocolat meets a Haitian activist who sparks his awakening to injustice and politics. Eventually leaves the circus route for a chance to play a more dramatic role on the legitimate stage in a production of Othello. However French audiences are reluctant to accept a black man in a serious role. But Rafael also has something of a self-destructive streak, and his gambling addiction and ill health soon brings about his downfall.
Monsieur Chocolat (aka Chocolat in some overseas territories) is the true story of Rafael’s rise to fame and his fall from grace. It has been written by playwright Cyril Gery (Diplomacy, etc), who has taken some liberties with the story for dramatic purposes. Monsieur Chocolat is a visually gorgeous production, with some handsome production values and brilliant attention to period detail. This is a multi-layered drama that mixes slapstick humour with a more human story of a flawed character whose hubris was his undoing. There are several brief flashbacks to Chocolat’s childhood on a plantation in Cuba, and we get glimpses of the colonial past and its inherent racism. The film also examines the deeply ingrained racism of early 20th century France, and the race politics play a big part in the circus act.
The film is helmed by actor turned director Roschdy Zem, whose films are often concerned with issues of race. His previous film was the 2014 drama Bodybuilder, about a bodybuilder whose son was in trouble with a gang of local thugs. The film gives us some insights into life with a circus, as well as a look at Paris during the so-called Belle Epoque. It has been beautifully shot by Zem’s regular cinematographer Thomas Letellier. Gabriel Yared’s sombre and haunting score adds to the film’s melancholy tone.
The first half of the film, as Chocolat learns his trade, is breezy, light, and a lot of fun. The second half though somehow lacks the full-on energy and pace of the first half and the material turns bleak as it charts Chocolat’s downfall. Zem also concentrates on Chocolat’s romance with the widowed nurse Marie (Clotilde Hesme) to the detriment of the film, an underwritten role which slows down the proceedings and adds little in terms of insight.
Casting of the two central roles is nothing short of inspired. Sy has a strong and charismatic screen presence which is used to great effect here. He also has great comic timing, but brings a sense of gravitas to the more dramatic nature of his character arc. A dancer, mime and real-life circus performer in his own right, Thierree brings great physical humour and timing to his performance. An early comic routine which fails to impress the circus owner will remind audiences of some of the physical comedy of Chaplin. And he makes it obvious the level of affection that he feels for Chocolate. Sy and Thierree develop a wonderful rapport and dynamic that enhances the film and they revel in the physical comedy.
At the end of the film we get to see some archival footage of the real life Footit and Chocolat in action, their clown routine shot by the famous Lumiere brothers, themselves pioneers of a new form of entertainment that would dominate the new century. It’s 100 years since the death of Chocolat, and this film serves as a marvellous reminder of his contribution to comedy and his enduring legacy. It is also a salient reminder of the repulsive nature of racism, and it delivers a timely lesson in how far we have progressed in a century in terms of diversity and tolerance.