The fascinating and despairing true story of France’s first famous black performer is brought to the screen in Chocolat, a lively belle-époque biopic whose noteworthy — and extremely timely — subject matter helps overcome what otherwise feels like a familiar rise-and-fall costume drama, albeit one with significant historical baggage.
Almost the cinematic opposite of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus, which told a similar tale (set roughly 70 years earlier) but did so without any humor or sense of hope, this easily accessible fourth feature by actor-director Roschdy Zem (Days of Glory, Omar Killed Me) is fully carried by its two leads: Intouchables’ Omar Sy as the titular clown who battled prejudice with laughter; and circus-stage star James Thierree, who channels the talents of his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin, to play a man climbing to fame (quite literally) on the back of the exploited.
A superbly performed if classically helmed biopic.
The many routines performed by the duo are definitely the highlights in a film that never shies away from the darker side of its racial past, up to and including a very non-Hollywood ending, yet at the same time bears a highly academic style that doesn’t really separate it from the pack. Shot on a budget of €18.5 million ($20 million), this Gaumont release should find a decent following among local audiences both in theaters and on the small screen. Overseas sales have been strong, with the U.S. a likely possibility — if only viewers can distinguish this Chocolat from the Claire Denis one, or else from that forgettable Juliette Binoche cacao romance.
Freely adapted by Zem, Cyril Gely and Olivier Gorce from Gerard Noiriel’s biography, the film follows the real-life travails of Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat (Sy), a former slave who made his way to France in the late 19th century and became a star of Paris’ Nouveau Cirque through the help of his partner-in-clowning, Tony Grice, aka Footit (Thierree).
Footit is already a known performer when he first encounters Chocolat at a provincial circus run by a money-grubbing couple (Frederic Pierrot and Noemie Lvovsky), who force the clever, Cuban-born exile to play the role of “the Nigger king Kalanka” — much to the fright of country bumpkins who have clearly never seen a black man before. But what Footit actually sees is Chocolat’s potential on stage, training him in a two-man number that has the former trying desperately to keep the latter in check, most notably in a William Tell-inspired sketch involving one apple and lots of spit. (The routine was captured on film in 1896 by movie pioneer Emile Reynaud, played here by a deadpanning Denis Podalydes.)
The team becomes so popular that they’re quickly whisked away to Paris by a hotshot impresario (Olivier Gourmet), who sets them up as one of the Nouveau Cirque’s main attractions. Fame and fortune soon follow — more of the former for Chocolat and the latter for Footit, who’s paid twice the amount of his partner — and along with them, the usual celebrity complications, including Chocolat’s drinking, gambling and womanizing, as well as some dark secrets involving Footit’s sexual preferences.
Such subplots are handled in an extremely predictable manner by the screenplay, as is an early affair between Chocolat and a fellow entertainer (Alice de Lencquesaing) that’s followed by a more serious love story with a widowed nurse (Clotilde Hesme).
Yet if Zem fails to bring much originality in those departments, and often directs in a broad and glossy style that’s closer to that of a lavish TV movie, the way he tackles the racial issues at the heart of his film is both intriguing and admirable, especially in a country — and entertainment industry — that has always had a hard time acknowledging its own history of bigotry, slavery and colonialism.
The paradox of Chocolat’s success is that, not unlike an early Gallic version of Stepin Fetchit, his rise to stardom comes at the expense of mocking his own race — something that the smart, Shakespeare-spouting clown accepts for a certain time, until a torturous stint in jail makes him see things differently. From then on, he decides to take a stand, provoking a split with Footit that will finally give him the chance to headline his own play, although it’s still unsure whether the Parisian public is ready to see a black man acting intelligently and of his own will.
Blending sharp physical comedy with lots of compassion, Sy does a fantastic job channeling the spirit of a man caught between his desire to be rich and free and the gradual recognition that he’s still only someone else’s whipping boy. The scene where he finally challenges his partner in public is surely the film’s most powerful moment, combining the silliness of an old-time vaudeville sketch with the triumph, however short-lived, of self-empowerment.
Known more for his theater performances than for his film work, Thierree is equally convincing as a serious, career-minded clown who happens to be more colorblind than those around him, yet refuses to change up a racist routine that all of Paris cherishes. If the behind-the-scenes action — and especially the sexuality stuff — is not all that memorable, Footit’s circus scenes are truly remarkable, with the acrobatic Thierree evoking a very Chaplin-esque character (they even look alike, save for the mustache) that actually makes the big top seem exciting again.
Taking a very different approach than Kechiche, whose Venus offered up a protracted and punishing vision of the colonialist mindset at home, Zem instead dishes out a work at once lighthearted and downtrodden, with a closing reel that nonetheless refuses to give us the catharsis we may be expecting. If Chocolat suffers at times from its pedestrian direction and very biopic-y sheen, it deserves plenty of credit for using this kind of commercial vehicle to look French racism in the face and call it what it is.
Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Gaumont, Korokoro, M6 Films
Cast: Omar Sy, James Thierree, Clotilde Hesme, Olivier Gourmet, Frederic Pierrot, Noemie Lvovsky
Director: Roschdy Zem
Screenwriters: Cyril Gely, Roschdy Zem, Olivier Gorce, freely adapted from the book Chocolat clown negre by Gerard Noiriel
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Thomas Letellier
Production designer: Jeremie D. Lignol
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Monica Coleman
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Casting director: David Bertrand
Not rated, 110 minutes