Director: Roschdy Zem

Cast: James Thieree, Omar Sy, Clotilde Hesme

Classification: M (Mature Themes, Violence and Coarse Language)

Review by Peter Gray

A film that’s just as much about racial prejudice as it is friendship and tragedy – two artistic companions that often go hand in hand – ‘Monsieur Chocolat’, like the circus performers at its centre, is a film that will make you laugh and cry.

Starting in Northern France in 1897, the film introduces us to artist Georges Footit (James Thieree), a circus clown whose mime-centric routines are enjoyable but hardly inspire the grimy circus owner to book him for the season. More successful is Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy, oozing charisma), a striking, statuesque man of colour who is exploited as a cannibal to intrigued audiences who have never seen a legitimate black man before.

Recognising Rafael’s talent, and learning of his desire to be more than just an intimidating prop, Georges suggests they work together, forming a never-seen-before black and white novelty act under the name of Footit and Chocolat; the latter’s loose movements and comedic timing compliments the former’s experience in the art, but Chocolat ultimately earns laughs over his own self degradation at the hands of Footit.

Their move to an elite circus in Paris looks to be the professional break they have both so craved, and the initial offerings of liquor, gambling, women, and money appears to suit Chocolat to a tee; his inability to hold on to any of these forms however hints at the self-destruction that ultimately consumes him. Paradise this proves not to be, and Chocolat’s desire to be taken seriously as an artist by ambitiously suggesting he portray the first black Othello tragically plays out to heartbreak in a city where his skin tone is never completely accepted.

‘Monsieur Chocolat’ occasionally slips in its story with its extended performance sequences often overstaying their welcome, but Thieree (who bears a striking resemblance to his real-life grandfather Charlie Chaplin) and Sy form so much heart together that their presence overcomes any of the film’s shortcomings.

The look and feel of the period of the film is beautifully captured, even if it isn’t always uniformly attractive, and the mood created by director Roschdy Zem and cinematographer Thomas Letellier allows this heartbreaking story to linger in our thoughts well after the bittersweet credits run.

My rating: 3.5/5

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