Back on home turf after a couple of disappointing secondary roles stateside (Jurassic World, Burnt) Omar Sy must be hoping Roschdy Zem’s biopic of Chocolat, France’s first black clown, will give his acting career a boost. Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s Les Intouchables turned Sy into a star and this film, like Les Intouchables, is based on a true story. Chocolat was born Rafael Padilla, a cuban immigrant who formed a hugely popular circus act with his English partner Footit during France’s La Belle Epoque. Zem’s Chocolat has all the elements of a great film – a stellar performance from Sy back on top form in a homegrown film after the lacklustre Samba, a spell-binding performance from James Thiérrée (Charlie Chaplin’s grandson) as Footit and an impressive recreation of the era by cinematographer Thomas Letellier. But in aiming for a mass audience, Zem has sidestepped a golden opportunity to put Chocolat’s extraordinary life into any form of political context. It could be the tale of almost any artist whose talent was thrown away through a fondness for drink and gambling.
The opening scenes will certainly shock modern day audiences as Chocolat, wearing a loin cloth, performs his humiliating circus act. But once the partnership with Footit is underway, the focus shifts to the working relationship between the two clowns and Chocolat’s ambition to be taken seriously as an artist. What of Chocolat’s relationship with a middle-class, white woman Marie (Clothilde Hesme ) which must have sent shockwaves through polite Parisian society, or the anger over the ostentatious flaunting of his wealth and fame? Likewise Footit’s implied homosexuality and his ambiguous feelings for Chocolat are given scant attention. When Chocolat’s political conscience is finally raised, it is swiftly pushed aside in favour of questions over artistic integrity. Without a doubt Chocolat is funny and entertaining and there’s plenty going on aside from the exploitation of a naïve, talented black man. Yet casting the narrative net a bit wider would make a more memorable film.
When Footit (Thiérrée) first meets Chocolat he is performing with a down-at-heel travelling circus in the French provinces owned by Delvaux (Frédéric Pierrot) and his wife (Noémie Lvovsky). Footit immediately sees Chocolat’s comic potential and they train together to produce a circus act which is wildly successful. Invited by Oller (Olivier Gourmet), the owner of a famous circus, to perform in Paris, the two clowns become the toast of the town with an act which consists mainly of endless pratfalls and Footit giving Chocolat repeated resounding kicks in the backside. Chocolat loves the celebrity and the money that comes with it and is soon drinking and gambling away most of his cash. Inevitably his debts catch up with him and his fall from glory will be as spectacular as his rise to fame.
The success of a biopic depends in large part on the talent of the actor playing the lead role and Sy is certainly up to the task. As he showed in Les Intouchables, he is immensly charismatic and naturally funny, although he lacks the grace and suppleness of a true clown. Not so, Thiérrée, who has clearly inherited his grandfather’s talent for physical comedy. He is an accomplished acrobat, dancer and juggler which is not surprising given he is the son of Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and Victoria Chaplin, the creators of Le Cirque Imaginaire. He brings an incredible emotional intensity to his role as the ambitious, entrepreneurial Footit who is knowingly exploiting his friend and business partner, despite their close relationship. Gourmet, Hesme and Pierrot complete an excellent cast of supporting actors. This is Zem’s fourth feature and his most commercial to date after Body Builder, Omar m’a Tuer and Mauvais Foi. Despite it’s flaws, it looks certain to be one of the year’s most successful films at the box-office.