A lively French box-office hit, Monsieur Chocolat details a fascinating rise-and-fall story. This is the tale of the first popular Afro-Cuban artist on the French stage. His real name was Rafael Padilla; but he became known as Chocolat. Padilla was only nine years old when sold into slavery. He then escaped to a different life.
Set in Belle Époque Paris, Monsieur Chocolat is beautifully realised through the energised performances of Omar Sy (The Intouchables) and real-life circus-performer – and grandson of Charlie Chaplin – James Thierrée.
During the late 1800s, Chocolat (Sy) is making a living in a provincial French circus. He performs the role of a tooth-baring cannibal named Kalanka. He’s a surprisingly novel spectacle for country folk who’ve never seen a black man before. It’s here that he impresses established performer George Footit (Thierrée); who takes him under his wing. They develop a routine that catapults them to stardom and riches in Paris’ Nouveau Cirque. But the satisfaction of success can only last so long. As Chocolat’s desire for equality starts to take hold, things begin to unravel.
I appreciated the frank approach the filmmakers took to the material. Credit here goes to the writer Cyril Gery and director Roschdy Zem.
A man full of optimism is broken on the back of his own excesses. Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room – his treatment as a black man in a white man’s world.
Omar Sy is a most charismatic leading man, who carries the audience’s hopes. But the character he plays, in the era this film is set, means success comes at a high price. His taciturn partner’s role, too, is a fascinating one. There was clearly a lot more to Footit than is revealed in the film. I was left somewhat frustrated that whatever “that” was, was left unsaid.
I knew absolutely nothing of the remarkable story when I sat down to watch this movie. It turned out to be a real eye opener. There’s even a snippet of the real duo at the end of the picture.
Rated M, Monsieur Chocolat scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: Roschdy Zem
Cast: Omar Sy, James Thierrée, Noémie Lvovsky
Release Date: 29 June 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television