Friday, May 6, 2016

Film Review: Monsieur Chocolat

[post 420]

Foottit & Chocolat were a legendary clown duo in turn-of-the-century, belle époque Paris, famed for their trailblazing partnership: the first white/black clown duo and first popular clown pairing of white face and auguste. Chocolat, born Rafael Padilla to slaves in Haiti, was to become France's first black celebrity, long before Josephine Baker.

The story of the rise and fall of Chocolat's career and its relation to racial politics has intrigued many writers, and it has recently gained more attention with a French play and a new biography (both by Gérard Noiriel), an exhibition, and now the release in France of a major motion picture, Monsieur Chocolat, starring the celebrated French actor Omar Sy and the exceptional physical comedian and clown, James Thiérrée.

Omar Sy & James Thiérrée in Monsieur Chocolat
The film has yet to find an American distributor, though I'm guessing it will. Meanwhile, I was lucky to catch it my last day in Barcelona. My cut-to-the-chase verdict:

Clowning / Physical Comedy:  A
Acting:  A
Cinematography:  A
Writing / Historical Accuracy:  D

Here's the official trailer.

The good news is that the depiction of circus life and the fragments of some very physical clown acts are well done, thanks no doubt to Thiérrée not only playing Foottit, but also choreographing the action. Thiérrée (grandson of Charlie Chaplin) has the physicality to pull off the manic acrobatic clowning of Foottit, who was very much in the robust tradition of 19th-century British knockabout comedy. And Sy, like Chocolat not coming out of the clown School of Hard Knocks, still very much holds his own in and out of the ring. You can actually imagine the audience finding them funny!

Only a few short film clips survive of Foottit & Chocolat. Filmed away from the circus ring, these first two clips, shot in 1896 by French film pioneers the Lumière brothers, show fragments of a William Tell entrée and a chair routine.

This longer, colorized clip, likewise shot without an audience, provides more clues as to the range of their work and Foottit's agility.

In Fellini's film, I Clowns (1970), he had two contemporary clowns depict what Foottit & Chocolat's chair routine might have looked like. The results seem tamer and much jollier than the original work. (The old man in the audience is the clown James Guyon —Paris' first famous auguste— who escaped from his hospital death bed to catch one last performance at the Nouveau Cirque, but the excitement led to a heart attack that killed him —or so the story goes.)

Now back to the movie and that storyline, and why did I only give it a "D"?

First of all, some credit to the filmmakers for tackling an important subject. It's a tricky one, because the act very likely contained racist elements, and yet Chocolat often got to be on top and slap and throw Foottit around the ring. Chocolat played the auguste, aka "he who gets slapped," so being the fall guy wasn't by definition racist, though many spectators might have especially enjoyed that aspect of it precisely because he was black, while others may have savored his moments of revenge.
Chocolat Dancing in
the Irish-American Bar

Toulouse-Lautrec (1896)

We would have to have been there to truly understand the dynamics, but my sense is that the film oversimplifies matters considerably. In the movie, Foottit discovers Chocolat earning a  meager living in a poor provincial circus, playing an African "savage" whose job it is to frighten the locals. Foottit creates an act for the two of them, audiences love it, and a producer brings them to Paris. Their big break!! Their first taste of the splendors of the City of Light!! They become stars but flame out after what seems to be just a couple of years when Chocolat has had enough of being the lesser-paid, somewhat abused underling, slaps Foottit hard in the ring, and storms out, turning his back on him forever. Gambling and drinking send Chocolat on a downward spiral from which he never recovers.

Very dramatic and all, but...... not much of it is true. Chocolat was actually discovered by another
well-known clown, Tony Grice, around 1884, started performing in Paris in 1886, and soon gained a reputation as a very funny auguste, often working independently, as augustes did at the time. He was featured in several water pantomimes at the Nouveau Cirque, including starring in La Noce de Chocolat (The Wedding of Chocolat) in 1887 —with a white bride, no less.

When Foottit and Chocolat teamed up in 1890,  they were both already famous as comedians, in the ring and on the variety stage. And their partnership endured until 1909, which if you're counting is 19 years together —in clown years a lifetime. In the final stretch, they were both branching out, with solo appearances in  pantomime and music hall, notably at the Folies-Bergère. Nothing all that dramatic.

A biopic is bound to compress history and simplify matters in order to expound a theme, but the distortions in this narrative are large enough to drive a circus wagon through. A few other examples:
• Chocolat died of a heart attack, not tuberculosis, and Foottit did not miraculously materialize at his bedside, just in time for the duo to reconcile, Chocolat taking his last breath as we fade to black.
• They were not the first whiteface-auguste team, just the first wildly popular one.
• Foottit had two sons who eventually joined him in the ring; in the movie he is a loner, no family, and there is a strong implication that he is gay.
• Foottit was British and part of his comic persona was speaking French with a horrible accent; Thiérrée is Swiss and in the movie speaks normal French.
• In the film, Chocolat struggles with alcoholism. In life, they both did.

You get the point... Oh well, there's still a lot to like, so go see the movie, and kudos to Sy and Thiérrée. Worth the price of admission!

UPDATE: Moshe Cohen was so kind as to forward me this article in French which goes further in detailing the larger historical distortions that make the movie such a mess.

Click here for an excellent Circopedia entry on Foottit & Chocolat.
Click here for a post of mine on Footit & Chocolat from 4 years ago.
Click here for a post of mine from 5 1/2 years ago on James Thiérrée.
Click here for an article that explains why not everyone loves Fellini's I Clowns.
Click here for a good interview (in French) with Sy and Thiérrée.


Mondomando said...

Thanks for a very intelligent and insightful review. Looking forward to seeing this, as there are clearly enough important strengths as you point out ... and I am also a sucker for both Sy and Thierree.

jt said...

You're welcome, glad you liked it. Yes, definitely see the film!

Hank Smith said...

I was hoping you'd see it, knowing that I would get an honest review of the film.