Alistair Harrison | 29/06/2017
Monsieur Chocolat, the latest offering from French director Roschdy Zem, tells the remarkable true story of Monsieurs Foottit et Chocolat - two men who rose from obscurity to become icons of the Parisian stage.
Foottit, resident clown in a provincial French circus in the late 19th Century, asks his dark-skinned co-star Katanga to abandon his existing role of ‘King of the Cannibals’ and join him in helping revive his flagging comedy act. The novelty of the new clown duo - one white, one black - coupled with the pair’s immense on-stage chemistry, quickly land the newly formed ‘Footit and Chocolat’ a residency at Paris’s renowned Nouveau Cirque, where they become stars of the show.
Sumptuous French scenery, a playful soundtrack and a strong supporting cast provide a perfect backdrop against which the two leads, Omar Sy (Chocolat) and James Thiérrée (Footit), spark and fizz. A real-life stage performer, Thiérrée’s circus scenes are compelling and surprisingly entertaining for fin-de-siècle slapstick. In the moments off-stage, Thiérrée’s cold and understated performance is punctuated fleetingly with rewarding moments of genuine warmth.
Sy’s performance as Chocolat, a man caught between worlds, is masterful. Chocolat’s growing frustration with a life few could dream of is at the core of the film - riches and renown at the expense of integrity and self-respect. That a man can rise to be the toast of every party in Paris, and yet still be drawn as a monkey on the poster - this is the endless perversion of Chocolat’s story, and Sy’s slow-burn performance as a man waking up to the irreconcilable truths of his time is heartbreaking.
While anchored by masterful performances, the film suffers somewhat from its unhurried pacing. Certain moments drag, and the cliché ending doesn’t help sell the idea that these two are unique in the world of performance history. There are also tremendous issues around the cinematic conversion of arena-based circus comedy, with some of the humour lost in the occasionally poorly shot circus montages. It’s understandable; after all, how difficult it must be to convey the frenetic, pulsating energy of a live circus performance to a modern audience through a medium that, by its very nature, does not allow one the same immersion as being in the crowd. Perhaps a more frenetic cut rate, or a single long take, would have been more effective. One could draw parallels between the difficulties of emboldening this sort of arena spectacle to a cinema audience and the exploits of Rocky, Creed and innumerable other boxing dramas – arena-based sports that have their energy and electricity successfully conveyed to the screen.
This is also coupled with characters who, for large swathes of the film are almost entirely unlikeable. Sy’s Chocolat is a degenerate gambler, who seems content to shatter young women’s hearts, while Thierree’s Footit, albeit redeemed at the end of the film, is predominantly an aloof presence for the duration of the events. Individually, in Acts 1 and 3, they are quite strong; as Footit loosens up, Chocolat realises his downfall and the acting talent of the two allows them to mellow in the drama (performances that Zem’s camera does well to linger on). However, during Act 2 it is only when together that they form something resembling an engaging protagonist.
Monsieur Chocolat is a triumph of acting, and certainly a spectacle for the senses. As a parable about the power of both art and love to help us transcend circumstance, it is not to be missed, but if you’re looking to be dragged into the magic of the Parisian circus, this is not for you.