Monsieur Chocolat is a good-looking period piece depicting racism in 19th century Paris through the true story of clowning duo Chocolat and Footit.
The lead character from which Monsieur Chocolat takes its title is loosely based on Cuban ex-slave Rafael Padilla (played here by The Intouchables’ Omar Sy), who found fame and fortune in 19th century Paris as the slapstick black fall guy in popular circus clown duo Chocolat and Footit.
The narrative is conventionally structured, tracking the conception and development of the career of Chocolat and Footit in chronologically linear progression. Already accomplished and well-known clown Footit (James Thierree) persuades Rafael to quit a demeaning and poorly paid freak show role as a black savage in a provincial circus and join him in a new duo act. With his own popularity in need of a boost, Footit sees potential in Rafael as his foil and argues that crowds will embrace a Negro clown as a novelty. He turns out to be correct.
Chocolat and Footit enjoy a meteoric rise to stardom in Paris. Footit is the mastermind of their act, which comprises stunts ending inevitably in Chocolat copping a kick in the pants, or similar. While Chocolat quickly establishes himself as the crowd favourite, he is paid much less than Footit.
This is an instance of the racism that was endemic in France at this time – but far worse is to come for Chocolat, including a stint in jail on illegal immigration charges, during which the wardens subject him to torture and beatings. It seems implausible that Chocolat’s profit-orientated circus owner does not act promptly to rescue him from incarceration, since he has become a valuable business asset by this stage.
While inside, Chocolat comes under the influence of an older and wiser black guy, who points out that his circus career, for all its material benefits, still casts him as a whipping boy for the amusement of the white audience.
This sows the seed for the eventual demise of the duo, which comes during a performance when Chocolat departs from script in a dramatic statement of self-empowerment that has the crowd wildly applauding. It’s a nice irony that Footit preaches incorporating the unexpected in his clowning, yet has never dared to subvert audience expectations as audaciously as Chocolat does here.
Reclaiming his real name, Rafael marries a widowed doctor’s wife, and decides to pursue a stage career. With the assistance of his wife he is improbably (actually, ludicrously) offered the role of Othello in a major theatre production in Paris. It came as no surprise to learn in my post-viewing research that this never happened. The exercising of poetic license is a given in a biopic, but the dramatic value of fictional enhancement is undone if it does not ring true in the context of the narrative.
The combination of soul-destroying racism and Rafael’s seeking refuge in drinking, laudanum consumption and gambling exacts a fearful toll, which sets him on a riches to rags trajectory. The tears of a clown, indeed…
The most interesting aspects of the film are the period and its socio-cultural setting, and the circus routines of Chocolat and Footit. James Thierree demonstrates some of the showmanship and flair of his legendary grandfather, Charlie Chaplin, with some frenetic and inventive clowning, and Omar Sy charms as the hapless sidekick. For all their panache, however, their circus act is allotted too much screen time and wears a bit thin.
The most significant shortcoming of the film, though, is the characterisation. There’s just not enough to Chocolat/Rafael to emotionally engage us (the flashing forward decades of the conclusion doesn’t help, either). Truth to tell, the dark and brooding Footit, whose sexuality is tantalisingly ambiguous, presents as the more interesting character, but we are never let in on what makes him tick.
A quick tip. Don’t make my mistake of leaving when the credits start to roll (a compelling call of nature was to blame, not an impatience to leave the cinema). I’m told there is some footage of the actual Chocolat and Footit right at the end that is well worth catching.
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