Monsieur Chocolat (M)
Rating: 4 / 5
In 2017, we would look askance at anyone who referred to a gentleman of colour as Mr Chocolate.
But in the late 19th century Monsieur Chocolat was the name proudly adopted by Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy), a former Cuban-born slave who became a circus performer in France.
Monsieur Chocolat follows Padilla’s life from circus to stage to short-lived fame and its eventual consequences for someone so obviously different from the Parisian crowds who flocked to see him.
Padilla escaped from slavery and travelled to Paris where he began a career in the circus to play a fierce cannibal in the cavalcade of circus types, whose main role was to roar at the crowd, with his 1.9 metres menacing figure looming over a fascinated audience who wanted a little fear in their circus entertainment.
Seeing an audience revel in fear from the black cannibal borders on the shocking, but this was perceived as normal family entertainment at the time, and Padilla himself is content and happy, saying that he is employed, well fed
and has a roof over his head.
Enter white clown Footit (James Thierrée) who is looking for a way to rejuvenate his career, and seeing Padilla’s obvious audience appeal, decides that the time is right for the first ever black and white clown double act, Footit et Chocolat.
Circus audiences are fascinated by this groundbreaking idea and it becomes an instant cash cow for delighted circus owners.
As their fame grows, so does their ability to command bigger audiences, and they are a hit in Paris. However, fame and money often have their downside, and sadly, Padilla is easily attracted to gambling and women, which affects his dedication to Footit et Chocolat.
Padilla has bigger ambitions than the circus—a devotee of Shakespeare, he is desperate to be the first black actor to play Shakespeare’s black character Othello. While he succeeds in his desire, life does not work out as it might in a Hollywood script.
Without spoiling the end, viewers may wish that he had remained content in the smaller world of a successful circus where he had happiness and health.
However, even as we witness Padilla’s road to misfortune, he does attract a devoted Parisian wife (Clothilde Hesme) who stays with him until the end.
Performances from the two leads are mesmerising. Frenchman Omar Sy is a charismatic actor who could easily grace a Parisian catwalk as a model, but is in demand as an actor and comedian and familiar to many from The Untouchables.
Swiss actor Thierrée is also a circus performer in real life, and he uses his beautiful eyes and intense face to great effect. There is a real bond between these two performers both in and out of the circus ring.
Seeing archival film at the end of the movie of the real-life Footit et Chocolat is a bonus in what is a thought-provoking and fascinating film.
Highlight: the compelling storyline
Red flag: strong language and some violence