Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Chocolat

Reviews - Chocolat


Reviewed By Vaughan Ames


Before this film started, I was put off by the idea of it being about clowns; "not my scene" was my instant thought. I suspect many regular viewers may have agreed as our audience was lower than normal. Well; those of us who did come along seemed to share the opinion that it was a lot better than we had thought it would be.

There was a fair amount of clowning, though mainly as the two clowns were rehearsing, but the bulk of the film was about something much more sinister which is still an issue today; racism.

Monsieur Chocolat was the stage name for an escaped Cuban slave (he only had a first name – Raphael – though he adopted the surname of his Spanish 'master' Padilla in later years). He had come to France via Spain in the late years of the 19th century and been recruited as a clown by the already famous English clown George Footit; at least this was how the film portrayed it – the reality was slightly different as he was really already a clown, initiated by a earlier clown, Tony Grice.

Footit and Chocolat became very famous and rich with their original idea of having two clowns together. Where it fell down – and eventually ended – was the roles they played. Chocolat was given the role of 'Auguste' – the fool. Not much fun being kicked around a stage, you might think, but even less fun when you are black and the audience is laughing at your skin colour as much as the act itself. This became doubly bad for Raphael when he was arrested and tortured by the police for being black and successful.

The script of the film was excellent at showing the trap he was in; he could continue making a fortune if he could handle the racism (he was, of course, actually making racism worse as the act emphasised his low position and stupidity), or he could walk away. I felt it even showed this trap was there for all working people: "if you don’t like the job, you can always leave and get another"...yeah, right!
Eventually Chocolat meets a woman – Marie - and falls in love. She (and an black activist he met in prison) inspire him to think bigger and he leaves Footit to become the first black actor in France to play Othello. His troubles did not end there though; the audience on the first night boo’ed him off the stage (it appeared to be set up by his enemies). Always a big spender, a gambler and an addict, his other life caught up with him at the same time; he is beaten up for the debts he has amassed.

Skip forward to his late 40s and he is back working in a tiny circus, but just as a stagehand. He has tuberculosis and is dying. Marie is still with him and we are shown that Footit has tried to help him with money over the years. Chocolat dies in Footit's arms... (I repeat here that Chocolat is true, but the film story changed considerably)

The two stars – Omar Sy and James Thiérrée – were both excellent here. Their clowning was great (Thiérrée, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, is a professional clown) but they both excelled at the grander part of their story – showing us the sadness and the violence in the life of this man.

I think it was this underlying 'politics' than won the day for the audience. Not just a funny film about a clown, or even a history of a forgotten duo that deserve better (They changed clowning forever and you could see the origins of the Marx Brothers, maybe even Morecambe and Wise, in their routines); the real story here was incredible racism that beset his life, and which is still prevalent in the world today.

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