Searching for a clown

Monsieur Chocolat

Directed by Roschdy Zem

Written by Cyril Gely, Olivier Gorce, Gerard Noiriel and Roschdy Zem

114 minutes, rated M

4 stars

This is the fascinating true story of Rafael, an Afro-Cuban man who became one of the first black stars in France, in the late 1880’s. As the clown Chocolat, he and Englishman George Foottit were the toast of Paris, wowing crowds at the New Circus and revolutionising clowning in the process.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is to say this is a confection with only passing resemblance to Rafael’s real life, at least the early parts of it. Or that it’s a film about racism in France now as well as then. That could be seen as making it both more relevant and more ambitious – or the reason it bends the truth when it suits. Both can be true.

Racism in France is actor/director Roschdy Zem’s special subject. Being a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, he has made a point of choosing roles that challenge stereotypes (such as playing a Jew in Live and Become from 2005). Two of the three films he has directed (Bad Faith and Omar Killed Me) were concerned with race in France. And let’s be honest – it’s not like the French don’t need to talk about it.

Here he teams up with the biggest black star in France – Omar Sy (from The Intouchables) – a casting so right, it gets the movie half way to where it’s going. A prologue shows the struggling Circus Delvaux, toiling in the provinces. George Foottit (James Thierree) strikes out in an audition for the stony-faced patron, Theo Delvaux (Frederic Pierrot) and his horrible wife Yvonne (Naomie Lvovsky). Foottit is a once-famous white-face clown on his way down – until he sees Rafael doing a solo act, scaring the children as ‘Kananga, the Negro King’. They team up in a variation of an old clowning staple: the sophisticated white-face clown and the clumsy ‘Auguste’, or fool. A few scenes to establish the development of their craft and they sign with a big name circus in Paris.

All great scenes and totally untrue. Rafael first performed in Paris in 1886, as part of a duo with Tony Grice, who was already a famous Auguste. Grice gave him the stage name Chocolat, nine years before he met Foottit. Rafael left Grice and was well-known as a solo performer before he took up with Foottit in 1895. He had also already met the love of his life, Marie Hecquet, played here by Clotilde Hesme.

The changes I describe support Zem’s desire to make this a film about the master and the servant. Foottit will later claim he ‘made’ Chocolat, which would be hard to sustain if we saw the real story. The race politics plays out in every part of their act, as Foottit teaches him to ‘take the slap’. Audiences adore the comedy of seeing a black man kicked around the arena; they laugh even louder when Chocolat invents small acts of rebellion. Pretty soon the duo is so famous that Chocolat dresses in the best suits in Paris and drives a shiny motor-car. The brothers Lumiere make a short film of their act (and we see the real footage at the end). Rafael is also developing expensive habits, to do with drugs and gambling, and a more radical ambition – to become the first black actor to play Othello on the French stage.

If it’s not much good as biography, the film is huge fun as a political comedy about race and entertainment. The relationship between Chocolat and Foottit is complicated. Foottit, who’s gay, cannot bear to see his friend become independent, but he never stops loving him from afar. Both actors revel in the physical comedy – and the recreation of their act is probably the truest part of the picture. In a sense, it’s a film about how far attitudes to race have changed in a century, and how far from enough that still is.