Director: Roschdy Zem
Writer: Cyril Gely, Olivier Gorce, Gérard Noiriel, Roschdy Zem
Cast: Omar Sy, James Thiérrée, Clotilde Hesme, Olivier Gourmet, Frédéric Pierrot, Noémie Lvovsky
Seen on: 2.6.2016
At the end of the 19th century, George Foottit (James Thiérrée) used to be a well-regarded clown, but his shtick has grown old and he is relegated to the sidelines more and more. That’s when he meets former slave Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy) who works in a small circus in Northern France. Foottit sees potential in him and proposes that they should form a clown duo – and one that defies all expectations, both regarding what clowns can do and what black people can do.
Chocolat tells an interesting story, but keeps to its surface only, nicely flowing along but never really getting to the bottom of it, ultimately complicit in the racism it tries to denounce.
Many years ago, I saw Thiérrée in Raoul, a mix between play and circus show and dance with which I fell in love completely. So I couldn’t possibly miss a chance to see him in a circus setting (albeit in a film). That Omar Sy is a charming, charismatic, talented actor as well certainly didn’t hurt. So I thought, it may not matter that much that I don’t know shit about clowns and don’t find a lot of them particularly funny. The film could have explained more about the basic personae in clowning and what the joke is with each. But they do show that clowning is hard work and not just random fooling around – something that is all too often forgotten. It’s in those scenes that the movie is really very effective in its focus on Thiérrée.
The rest of the time the film is mostly with Padilla aka Chocolat. With him, it’s much less a film about clowning than it is a film about race and the discrimination of black people. One is tempted to write “at the time”, but while the almost cartoonish seeming racism (actual zoolike exhibitions and red-lipped, apelike cartoons of black people which are things that actually happened, of course) may have taken a backseat by now, we’re hopefully all aware that the issues are far from gone – and can still appear cartoonish even though they are dead serious.
Unfortunately, the film denounces the racism that Padilla encountered just as much as it wants the audience to laugh about yet another kick in the butt Chocolat receives from a white man in the arena. Padilla’s increasing bitterness at that treatment disappears in his issues with gambling, sex and drugs, for both the character and the audience.There’s also the fact that the serious white person works very hard and is very detailoriented while the black person just wants to party and have things come naturally and has trouble controlling themselves and their emotions – a dynamic that raises my race eyebrows so to say. In any case Sy does a great job with a character who continually runs into walls and tries to dismantle them however he can, even if it means dismantling himself.
But as Padilla’s relationship with Foottit starts to suffer (Foottit’s disappointment in Padillas definitely comes with a taste of the spurned lover which was an interesting note to play), so does the film. It becomes increasingly obvious that it hasn’t really understood the pervasive and ongoing effect of racism and that it really doesn’t want to engage with women as human beings at all. And that is just a pity – Padilla would have certainly deserved better.