Directed by Roschdy Zem
Starring Omar Sy, James Thierree, Clotilde Hesme
In Paris on the cusp of the 20th century one show revitalized the clown, making it something fresh and new for the age of modernity. The act spawned advertising, was fodder for early cinema, and echoed across continents, even to the far shores of the USA. That act was that of Footit and Chocolat. Monsieur Chocalat is a biographical look at the man behind one of those larger than life characters, Rafael Padilla, an escaped slave of Afro-Cuban origins, who became the first black artist in the French scene.
As you would expect, racism is one of the major themes addressed here. The comedy of Footit and Chocolat relies on the duality of the white (authoritative) clown and an Auguste (an idiot drudge). In making the unintelligent servant black, and often subject to physical abuse – well, society has moved on a lot since then. Monsieur Chocolat is aware of this and threads such painful realizations into Rafael’s growing awareness, addressing and subverting it in acts through his career. It also looks at the institutionalized racism of colonialism, although it is slightly less direct, as it forms the narrative of Rafael’s early life, and the social background of how he is occasionally treated.
Here the trick is to create something that is a critical examination these factors for modern audiences, without resorting to a revisionist view of history. Monsieur Chocolat achieves this, although it does rather stretch some facts to do it, such as the fictitious Shakespearean performance that drives the last act. Other than that, the sense of period created is immersive. Turn of the century France is brought to life on screen, and you are plunged into the centre ring of a show, the crowd looking eagerly on.
Sy and Thierree have great chemistry here, as the fluid and often mercurial course of their relationship drives the dramatic tension. Thierree’s performance background is put to work, bringing a believability about the stage performances. However it’s Sy that is the heart of this film, as he brings to life the titular character. We see his growth from naive enthusiasm, to something more thoughtful and retrospective.
The fault lies in it’s ambition. In stretching to tell as comprehensive a tale of Chocolat as it can, the film stretches itself too thin. Not enough is covered in depth, and much of the later character development seems forced and not organic. At almost exactly two hours, that last half an hour seems to drag, with little reward for that time. Either a tighter cut, or a just bit more meat to those bones might have served it better than it is.
Still, even imperfect, this is a fascinating look at a time gone by.