Monsieur Chocolat Adam-Fresco'S REVIEW

Think The Elephant Man, only in French and with clowning. Biography, tragedy, metaphor of France’s colonial heritage, racist parable and circus buddy-flick, Monsieur Chocolat may not be to everyone’s taste, but with acting, direction, cinematography and art direction this good, you’d be hard pressed to fault its ambition.

Director Roschdy Zem delivers a scintillating melodrama set beneath the big top. Evocative and emotional, the story charts the rise to fame – and fall – of Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban slave and France’s first black stage celebrity.

Opening in 1897, Rafael (Omar Sy, The Intouchables) plays a cannibal savage in a country circus. He meets down on his luck circus clown, George Petit (James Thierrée, grandson of Charlie Chaplin.) As Footit and Chocolat, the duo form France’s first clowning double-act. Delighting crowds with their knockabout act, they soon rise to the heights of Paris’ Nouveau Cirque theatre.

At its core, this is a human tragedy. Rafael falls prey to the excesses of fame – gambling, sex, drink and drugs – as Caucasian audiences laugh and clap a white clown kicking his black partner’s ass every night on stage. But when Rafael attempts to be taken seriously as France’s first black performer to play Shakespeare’s Othello, audiences react with contempt.

What could have been so much maudlin sentimentality is uplifted by the dynamic performances of Sy and Thierrée, the latter looking and acting so much like his grandfather, it’s uncanny. Their physical comedy is joyous to behold, made even better when, at the closing credits, footage of the real duo plays. Yup, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore, but in Monsieur Chocolat, they do.