Breathtaking and magical, Monsieur Chocolat (directed by Roschdy Zem) is one to watch if you want to experience a Parisian night. Immerse yourself in the world of 19th-century French circus and follow the biopic story of Chocolat (Omar Sy). He journeys from a performer acting as the “cannibal” to a more respected position as a clown in a duo with Foottit (James Thiérrée). Together, they reach fame but things start to fall apart when Chocolat wishes to be more and ambitions clash.
A much realistic and less colourful counterpart to Moulin Rouge!, Monsieur Chocolat blends drama and comedy well. It hits all the right notes on the rollercoaster that is Chocolat’s journey. The film doesn’t shy away from the issues black people face. Not only does it explore the jealousy and competitiveness behind the curtain, the importance of being the star and the constant fear of becoming a washout, the film explores how it all entwines with racism. It raises the stakes and makes the experience quite intimate and confronting.
The film also makes a point to highlight that even though Chocolat is talented and popular, society still sees him as different. This is reinforced by his and Foottit’s routine where he gets slapped and kicked by the latter, not to mention their posters where Chocolat is stereotypically drawn as a creature. This goes unquestioned through most of the film until Chocolat encounters a radical and hits an epiphany. We also get to see his white contemporaries struggle with the hate society taught them and try to understand that Chocolat isn’t just a prop but a person too. His determination for equality in both the entertainment and real world produces an emotional impact. You’ll be grabbing tissues and feel his frustration rushing up your veins, forgetting this is a period drama set in 19th century France.
France isn’t depicted through rose-tinted eyes and is far away from nostalgia. Even the Parisian elites aren’t given a glamourous treatment. Behind the fancy outfits, they’re cold and distant from the harsh life performers must live in. The plot itself is straightforward (there’s really no messing around with screentime) and has the predictable moments: rise to fame, eventual backstabbing and fall from grace, but the actors/characters make them refreshing and again, emotionally charged. Far from a happy ending, the film leaves you in awe and deep contemplation.
Sy delivers a soulful performance. He adds complexity to Chocolat, always keeping in mind of the character’s past and internalised hate, and places the present he faces on top of that. He takes control of these experiences to fuel his determination to achieve his goals as seen through bodily intensity and his eyes which are like mirrors reflecting his thoughts and inner turmoil.
Thiérrée’s Foottit carries an equally emotional presence despite the difference in personality between the two characters. Foottit is more of a steady flame compared to Chocolat and bodily reserved, his expressions are limited, yet he becomes alive and a sharp Charlie Chaplin-style where work is concerned. It’s something that keeps you unsettled and wondering or waiting if he would betray his partner any time soon.
An emotional ride, Monsieur Chocolat introduces us to two sides of the French circus and challenges us with social issues without coming off as preachy. The tragic hero Chocolat overcomes barriers and inspires, worthy to be seen.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Monsieur Chocolat is now screening nationally. This review was originally published as part of the AF French Film Festival.