Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy) has escaped his beginnings as the son of a slave in the second half of 19th century Cuba and is the freak attraction, Tananga the Cannibal, at a provincial French circus, when he is discovered by the professional circus clown, Footit (James ThierrŽe). The unprecedented duo he forms with Footit as the first black performer in France, with the stage name Chocolat, is popular with audiences in Belle Epoque Paris, until easy money, gambling, racial discrimination and ill health take their toll on their friendship and Chocolat's career. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's a bitter sweet story of a shooting star, its trajectory similar to any one of a handful of rock stars and the like, but given added depth, texture and resonance by history and circumstance. Rafael Padilla (not to be confused with the Guatamalen painter of the same name) died 100 years ago this year (2017), and the film reminds us that the world was a very different place then. Blacks were either servants or freaks in a circus, for example.
But the film isn't about racial prejudice but about the frequent companion of artistic success: tragedy. It's also about friendship, about the odd couple that was formed out of Footit the clown and Chocolat his fall guy.
Casting is always important, but in this film it is absolutely crucial: Omar Sy is perhaps the obvious choice to play Chocolat, being a high profile black performer in France, with a comedic talent that underpins his dramatic work. But obvious doesn't guarantee great results: Sy does. From the awkward to the assured, from the shy and insecure to the confident, Sy brings out the innards of his character and makes us care.
James ThierrŽe, Charlie Chaplin's grandson (unmistakably so), a genuine circus performer, makes his inventive clown routines work into the film with great success. He is also a consummate actor, and his emotional attachment to Chocolat builds on a complex set of feelings, conflicts and experiences they share.
Wonderful performances from all the cast, notably the two women in Chocolat's life who we meet (there were others), Alice de Lencquesaing as Camille, who runs away from the provincial circus to follow him to Paris but too late... and Clotilde Hesme as Marie Hecquet, the widow who nurtures and nurses him to the end.
The film captures the period in look and feel, the latter propelled by a terrific score from Gabriel Yared, and creates a haunting, sombre mood that lasts well after the end credits.
Review by Louise Keller:
Like the clowns at its centre, this haunting and moving film makes us laugh and cry as we embark on its tumultuous story that begins with the smell of sawdust. Director Roschdy Zem's Monsieur Chocolat is an extraordinary film in many ways, not the least it being a reminder of how far society has come in the last 100 years in relation to ugly racism.
Then there is Omar Sy who simply oozes charisma from every cm of his well-built 1.9m frame - in the title role as France's first black circus artist. The surprise package is James Thierree as the man who catapults Chocolat to stardom. His uncanny resemblance to his handsome grandfather Charlie Chaplin is striking (he looks like a cross between Chaplin and Robert Downey Jnr.). In real life he is a circus performer, a mime artist and dancer. His performance is superb.
The story begins in Northern France in 1897, when Rafael Padilla (Sy) is performing at a grimy circus, where he is exploited as a cannibal to audiences that have never before seen a black man. Watching Thierree as Georges Footit perform his imaginative routines as a clown is inspiring, but not so the routines of Footit and Padilla (with a stage name of Chocolat), when they perform as a white and a black clown novelty act. Chocolat's loose movements and innate sense of comedy complements that of the experienced Footit, but the humour relies on the degradation of Chocolat. They become 'indivisible': two sides of the same coin.
Clothes, cars, girls, gambling, liquor and the high life are irresistible to Chocolat when the double act is invited to join an elite Paris circus. He cuts a striking figure. But all is not well in paradise and Chocolat's pain to be exhibited as a freak becomes too much. His ambitious idea to play the first black Othello (to garner respect as an artist) also plays out with heartache.
The heart of the film lies in the depiction of the turbulent relationship between Chocolat and Footit: the scenes between the two men are potent and filled with pathos. The fact that audiences are not ready to accept a black performer in any other guise than a servile one is heartbreaking. Watch for Clotilde Hesme as the widow to whom Chocolat is attracted.
As a film, Monsieur Chocolat soars. It is wonderful; troubling; heartbreaking. The tragedy of the story is multilayered and as a result affects in a deeper way than simply a drama with disturbing elements. It's a film that engages and entertains as it offers much food for thought and discussion.
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MONSIEUR CHOCOLAT (M)
CAST: Omar Sy, James Thierree, Clotilde Hesme, Marie Hecquet, Olivier Gourmet, Frederic Pierrot, Noemie Lvovosky, Alice de Lencquesaing, Alex Descas, Olivier Rabourdin
PRODUCER: Eric Altmeyer, Nicolas Altmeyer
DIRECTOR: Roschdy Zem
SCRIPT: Cyril Gely, Olivier Gorce
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Thomas Letellier
EDITOR: Monica Coleman
MUSIC: Gabriel Yared
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jeremie D. Lignol
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 29, 2017