Monsieur Chocolat

Monsieur Chocolat

(2016)

César Award-winning actor Omar Sy (The Intouchables) plays the first black circus artist in France, 'Chocolat' the clown, in this biopic from director Roschdy Zem.... More

Monsieur Chocolat is based on the life of Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban-born slave who became a performer in France during the Belle Epoque era. Padilla was born in Cuba in 1868 and was sold into slavery at age nine to a Portuguese merchant. After escaping slavery, he travelled to Paris and launched a career in the circus, captivating the French with his talents as a singer and dancer and as a clown, working under the stage name 'Chocolat'.Hide

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Flicks Review

Think The Elephant Man, only in French and with clowning. Biography, tragedy, metaphor of France’s colonial heritage, racist parable and circus buddy-flick, Monsieur Chocolat may not be to everyone’s taste, but with acting, direction, cinematography and art direction this good, you’d be hard pressed to fault its ambition.... More

Director Roschdy Zem delivers a scintillating melodrama set beneath the big top. Evocative and emotional, the story charts the rise to fame – and fall – of Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban slave and France’s first black stage celebrity.

Opening in 1897, Rafael (Omar Sy, The Intouchables) plays a cannibal savage in a country circus. He meets down on his luck circus clown, George Petit (James Thierrée, grandson of Charlie Chaplin.) As Footit and Chocolat, the duo form France’s first clowning double-act. Delighting crowds with their knockabout act, they soon rise to the heights of Paris’ Nouveau Cirque theatre.

At its core, this is a human tragedy. Rafael falls prey to the excesses of fame – gambling, sex, drink and drugs – as Caucasian audiences laugh and clap a white clown kicking his black partner’s ass every night on stage. But when Rafael attempts to be taken seriously as France’s first black performer to play Shakespeare’s Othello, audiences react with contempt.

What could have been so much maudlin sentimentality is uplifted by the dynamic performances of Sy and Thierrée, the latter looking and acting so much like his grandfather, it’s uncanny. Their physical comedy is joyous to behold, made even better when, at the closing credits, footage of the real duo plays. Yup, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore, but in Monsieur Chocolat, they do.Hide


The Peoples' Reviews

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Films about racism come in a variety of genres and styles. Most are essays in conflict and hardship so it is unusual to find one that is based on circus clowns and laughter. The traditional circus was a mirror of the race and class structures of society and audience response reflected social values. This theme overarches the delightful French film Chocolat (2016) that is based on the true story of the first black-skinned circus entertainer in 19th century Paris.

A brief note on the history of... More clowns might help to see the deeper layers of this film. Dating to Greek and Roman theatre, the popularity of the clown’s low-class buffoonery reflects the human need to occasionally step outside of the norms of society. Their costumes and personality codes vary widely from the European harlequin jester or comical fool to the American down-and-out hobo caricature. Traditional circus clowns perform slapstick comedy in pairs: the white-faced clown is the instigator of gags, the red-faced (or Auguste) clown is the victim or fall-guy. With centuries of tradition behind them, it was a cultural shock for French circus audiences to see a black-faced Auguste clown for the first time and terrifying to know that it was not black makeup.

It is 1886 and the tired-looking Circus Delvaux is auditioning for acts to restore its fortunes. White clown George Foottit (James Thiérrée) is struggling to find work until he teams up with a former Cuban-negro slave with the stage name of Chocolat (Omar Sy). They quickly become a sensational duo, and the Delvaux circus prospers as crowds flock to see George kick, slap, and humiliate Chocolat. As their fame grows, Chocolat becomes the star celebrity and flaunts his success with flamboyant clothes, expensive car, gambling and substance abuse. Over time, Chocolat grows resentful of the racist taunts and abandons George for a career as a Shakespearean actor. Despite a credible performance as Othello, French audiences cannot accept a black person in serious theatre. With growing gambling debts and ill health, Chocolat ends his career in sadness and despair.

There are so many engaging layers in this film. Both co-stars are brilliant in their roles and the detailed period sets exude authenticity. The behind-the-tent circus life is full of unusual and interesting humanity living in convoys of small caravans that move entertainers from town to town. From the perspective of the modern screen-reliant world, it is charming to see the physicality and humour of the lost art of circus slapstick comedy. While today’s social conscience finds the blunt racism of a past era repulsive, this film reminds us of the ever-presence of race as a social divider. The appearance of black skin no longer shocks anyone but black talent is still the ‘Auguste’ in contemporary cinema.

This multi-layered film has a nuanced mix of humorous entertainment, historical insight and contemporary relevance. While funny faces, staring eyes, and goofy slapstick struggles to draw loud laughter today, the dark message of Chocolat lies in its portrait of racism masked as humour.

Director: Roschdy Zem
Stars: James Thiérrée, Omar Sy, Clotilde Hesme
Produced in FranceHide


Well paced tale with the divine Omar Sy in the title role. Probably not as historically accurate as the real Footit and Chocolat story but enlighting. Interesting that Foottit is played by James Thierree who has picked up his grandfather (Charlie Chaplin) and parents (Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Bapitese Thierree) grace of the vaudevillian era.


The Press Reviews

  • A superbly performed if classically helmed biopic. Full Review

  • [A] lavish and increasingly involving study of fin-de-siècle racism. Full Review

  • With the help of evocative production design and Paris locations, Zem and his cast have brought back to life an entertainment pioneer who was tragically forgotten by the time he died in 1917. Gabrel Yared’s score is a plus. Full Review

  • Chocolat is a film that travels from raucous to heartbreaking and back again more than once. It is an engaging, entertaining, angering and mostly very admirable couple of hours. Recommended. Full Review