Monsieur Chocolat depicts the real-life story of Afro-Cuban performer Rafael who was the first black clown to play a lead role in a circus pantomime act, garnering his famous stage name, Chocolat.
We first discover former-slave Rafael (Omar Sy) performing the role of a teeth-baring, exotic cannibal, Kalanka, for a small travelling circus in provincial France where no-one has ever seen non-Caucasians. Here, established clown, George Footit (James Thierrée), discovers Rafael and convinces him to become his performing partner to spice up his failing act. Together they create an act that catapults them to the riches and fame of the stage at the Nouveau Cirque in Paris.
Footit and Rafael revolutionise the art of clowning by pairing the sophisticated white clown, played by white Footit, with the foolish auguste clown, played by black Rafael. The excitement of the glamour soon starts to wear off for Rafael, as he becomes more interested in establishing equality, especially in his and Footit’s performances in which he is always portrayed as being foolish, dumb and slow because of his colour.
A large part of why Monsieur Chocolat is such an impressive film is the attention to detail found in the varying 1800’s sets and props – from stunning classic vintage cars to the many glamorous Parisian bars, restaurants and theatres. The costumes, as well, are absolute knockouts, from Rafael and Footit’s array of colourful, flamboyant performance costumes (and Footit’s ever-changing stage makeup), to the many, many luxuriously glamorous suits Rafael adorns himself with.
Omar Sy is absolutely brilliant as Monsieur Chocolat, balancing his good-willed humour in the face of adversity with his eventual defiance of negative black stereotypes, and the struggle he faces between his strong morals, the luxury of wealth and drinking and gambling addictions. Sy also does a fantastic job in the many physical comedy routines performed throughout the film, showing a true dedication to his role.
Real-life circus-performer, James Thierrée (who is also the grandson of Charlie Chaplin), masterfully embodies the role of the famed clown, Footit, to the highest standard. He is a true natural, and his performance is extremely reminiscent of his grandfathers’ famous roles. Thierrée acts as well as he performs as a clown, and is a true highlight of the film alongside Sy.
Monsieur Chocolat is a perfectly constructed representation of the stage-revolutionary Rafael that will impress, surprise and bring tears to your eyes – a real treat of this year’s French Film Festival.
Reviewed by Georgina Smerd
Rating out of 10: 8