Biopics are, in many ways, as reviled as they are loved.
Done well, with inventiveness and a willingness to showcase creatively some core period in that person’s life that speaks best to who they were throughout, biopics are an illumination, a artistic snapshot grants compelling insight to figures often defined by public persona and not much else.
Done poorly, however, and you end up with a muddled mess of haphazard chronology and muted insight that does nothing to add substance to the skeleton of popular perception.
Monsieur Chocolat, from director and co-screenplay writer Roschdy Zem, falls somewhere in-between, existing as much as a harsh spotlight on race relations in France at the turn of the twentieth century as a biographical exploration of the life of Rafael/Chocolat (Omar Sy), an Afro-Cuban who found fame in late nineteenth fame as an “Auguste” (fool) clown, both solo and in partnership with the likes of Englishman Georges Foottit (James Thiérrée) who is featured in the film.
His life was a tragic one in many respects with Rafael sold from poverty in Cuba where he had no memory of his birth parents to what amounted to slavery (though it was technically illegal after an 1862 law change in Spain) with the wealthy Castaño family who treated him so poorly that he ran away at the age of 15 or so, working in a series of oddjobs to make ends meet.
His date with circus destiny came courtesy not of Foottit – although the central conceit of Monsieur Chocolat is that the English crown was the driver and originator of Rafael’s fame and fortune – but another Englishman Tony Grice who took the ambitious Rafael to Paris where he grew so successful he was wealthy enough to wear expensive suits, own car and be the toast of Parisian society.
However, all that fame and fortune came with an onerous caveat, with people applauding Rafael’s role playing in the circus ring, laughing both at the way Grice and then Foottit ridiculed but also Chocolat’s small moment of exquisitely well-timed comedic rebellion, but treating altogether differently once he walked out onto the street.
Moroccan-born Zem, who has focused on the nature of race relations in France in two of his three films (Bad Faith, Omar Killed Me), in unstinting in his portrayal of the cruelly dual nature of Rafael’s life in Paris – feted at the circus where is hailed as a supremely talented comedic actor but often reviled outside of that, especially when, seeking greater challenges and credibility, he becomes the first black man to play Othello in French theatre.
It is gripping and brutal at times, poignant and immensely affecting at others, illustrating how difficult life was for people of colour in Europe at the time – to be honest while things have improved, there is still a considerable way to go – who, like Othello, could have all the trappings of success but never truly be seen as included in the inner sopcietal bastion.
Condemned to be perpetual outsiders, no matter how well acclimated they were to the reigning mores of the day, they were always on the outside looking in, cautioned in ways big and small not to cross certain lines (such as marry a white woman which Rafael did, a French nurse Marie played by Clotilde Hesme) or get ideas above their station.
But as Zem beautifully conveys, Rafael was as much a victim of his own demons as he was institional racism, falling prey to the twin vices of gambling and alcohol addiction, which precipitated his downfall every bit as much as the bigoted society around him, particularly when he began to push beyond the unspoken barriers erected around any success beyond that deemed appropriate.
In this respect then, Monsieur Chocolat sit between the biopic and a searing indictment of racial inequality, a reasonably well-justified tack given Rafael’s life that does far more than the standard biographical storytelling in giving us a fully fleshed out, or as fully fleshed as a storyline with which some liberties have been taken – the insertion of the provincial Delvaux circus, for instance, as the starting point for Rafael’s rags-to-riches climb; he, in fact began his circus career in Paris – overview of Rafael’s gloriously-troubled life.
There it is supremely successful, giving us by necessity of a broad brushstroke sense of who Rafael was, a man buffeted both within and without, and brought to thoroughly affecting, and often likable life by Omar Sy.
His performance is as nuanced as you could ask for given the reasonably high level sense we are given of Rafael’s life, at times funny, exuberant and childlike carefree – in marked contrast to Foottit whose buttoned-down closeted persona left overly-serious and intense – and at others, troubled and driven as the full weight of the forces bearing down upon him came to bear.
While the origin of his relationship with Foottit is almost entirely fabricated, it anchors the film by giving it a central, pivotal emotional conduit to channel much of the narrative through; the rise, the fall and the in-between of Rafael’s life is given moving potency by virtue of Foottit’s presence in many key, defining scenes.
It is this relationship, which did exist, professionally and personally and which was captured by the Lumiere brothers (see above; the scene in which it is filmed has a delightful meta commentary about whether cinema would succeed as an art form or not), that played a major role in defining Rafael’s life, both as the “Auguste” clown that gave him his big break and after when life was once again profoundly cruel to him, and while it is no doubt twisted to fit the narrative, it remains the affecting filter through which all other events are portrayed.
From the big, brash, fun circus scenes, where Chocolat is on full garrulous display, and the more sober behind the scenes moments when Rafael discover to his great regret and mounting anger and sadness that there are limits to how much society will accept him, Monsieur Chocolat is a richly-told, evocative film that manages to straddle two genres, in the process giving us an impressively compelling, emotionally-involving tale of a remarkable, groundbreaking though sadly-troubled man.