One great turn inspires another in Monsieur Chocolat — and what stellar, standout turns they are. In this handsome showbiz biopic, a late 19th/early 20th century comedic pioneer inspires a film-stealing performance from a current acting talent. The former is Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat, the first black clown to star in the French big top. The latter is actor Omar Sy, who previously impressed audiences in The Intouchables, Mood Indigo and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
If you don't recognise Padilla's name, the film will soon help you understand why. Examining how he became one of France's forgotten comics is as much a part of Monsieur Chocolat as charting his humorous feats. When the movie introduces the former Afro-Cuban slave, he's playing a cannibal in a regional circus and considered a novelty amongst a cast of white performers. His fortunes seem to change after he joins forces with English clown George Foottit (James Thierrée), and yet much still stays the same. While their acclaimed double act takes them to Paris' prestigious Nouveau Cirque, amusing the masses and earning their respect are two very different things.
Here, the leap from loincloth to top hat proves giant in perception but tiny in reality, with director Roschdy Zem unafraid of tackling the obvious factor that complicated Chocolat's career. Bigotry dogs the performer at every turn; kids scream at his teeth-gnashing savage routine, while envious rivals try to keep him down. Even at the height of his popularity, he finds himself arrested on the street. So too is the prejudice clear in the public's reaction when he sets out to become a serious actor.
Monsieur Chocolat presents a rise-and-fall narrative, as well as a dissection of stereotypes and discrimination, that feels simultaneously familiar and fresh. This isn't the first time a film has offered a behind-the-scenes look at the less-than-glamorous reality of fame and fortune; nor is it the first time we've been made to face the entertainment industry's poor treatment of multicultural talents. And yet, while few truly original stories may rear their heads these days, previously untold true tales can still strike a chord — particularly when may of the same social issues remain a problem more than a century later.
Accordingly, Monsieur Chocolat is a bittersweet affair. It's rightfully sombre in its contemplation of how its title character was treated, and yet absolutely jubilant in depicting him do what he did best. Sy is crucial to both – his clowning skills are a sight to behold, as is his rapport with real-life circus performer Thierrée. In a better world, their reenactments of Chocolat and Foottit's marvelous act would be the only thing this movie needed to focus on, but unfortunately that's not the one we live in. Come for the big top delights. Stay for the grim reality behind them. In tackling both, this film is a worthy tribute to Chocolat's remarkable legacy.