Monsieur Chocolat co-writer/director Roschdy Zem might be best-known in France for tough contemporary pics (like Omar Killed Me), but here he shows real skill with the costume drama as well.
He’s helped greatly by star Omar Sy, who had been acting for over 10 years but still seemed to come out of nowhere when he appeared in the hugely successful (if oddly titled) The Intouchables. Sy’s titular turn here as Chocolat (his real name isn’t revealed until late in the action), the first black stage performer in France, is wonderfully charismatic, often very funny and, of course, in bitter biopic fashion, sometimes painfully tragic too.
In 1897 we meet Georges Footit (played by James Thierrée, actually Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, and he certainly looks it), a clown with a history auditioning for a spot in a provincial circus run by Théodore Delvaux (Frédéric Pierrot), although his nasty wife Yvonne (Noémie Lvovsky) is shown to be the real boss at times. Georges is rejected but stays on to see the show and catches an appearance by ‘Kananga’ (Sy), a supposed savage and cannibal who mock-menaces the audience, and Delvaux and others start using the sort of vicious racist language that continues throughout the film, all of which should make modern PC viewers cringe.
Georges is surprised to discover that it’s all a put-on and he hits upon the notion of a double-act with this gifted performer, now named Chocolat, and soon they’re the star draws and developing a kind of wild physical comedy that would eventually revolutionise the art form. Spotted and recruited by Joseph Oller (Olivier Gourmet) from the Nouveau Cirque in ‘Belle Epoque’ Paris, they travel there in search of fame and fortune and certainly find it, although Chocolat also can’t escape the sometimes violent racism, and is soon heavily into gambling, womanising, drinking and reckless behaviour. And who could blame him?
A story apparently long-buried, as if Chocolat’s memory made many feel ashamed (and it should too), this features very fine work from Sy, and he’s matched by Thierrée, who works hard to make the onstage pratfalls with his co-star look authentic (and there are times when you can’t help but think of his grandfather in classics like Modern Times). And when we’re treated to a silent and scratchy clip of the real ‘Footit Et Chocolat’ performing just before the end credits there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Rated M. Monsieur Chocolat is in cinemas now