Bit­ter­sweet taste of an en­ter­tainer’s life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Re­views -

M(M) on­sieur Cho­co­lat, ti­tled sim­ply Cho­co­lat in France where it was made, is a be­guil­ing re­minder of the ways in which com­edy de­vel­oped in the 20th cen­tury. The co­me­di­ans who his­tor­i­cally per­formed as jesters in royal courts and later on stage in the plays where comic char­ac­ters pro­vided re­lief from the drama were, by the end of the 19th cen­tury, mostly to be found in cir­cuses and vaude­ville and it was from these sources that, even­tu­ally, many clowns be­came the bas­tions of silent screen com­edy — the Buster Keatons, Harold Lloyds and Char­lie Chap­lins. Watch­ing this ac­com­plished film, which os­ten­si­bly deals with the rise and fall of the first black clown, Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy), I was bowled over by the per­for­mance of James Thier­ree, who plays Tony Grice, aka Footit, the white clown whose partnership with Padilla’s Mon­sieur Cho­co­lat made them both fa­mous.

Thier­ree’s first ap­pear­ance in the film is an au­di­tion scene in which he’s try­ing to im­press Del­vaux (Frederic Pier­rot), the owner of a small strug­gling cir­cus. His re­sem­blance to the young Chap­lin is re­mark­able, and the rou­tine he per­forms, in which he con­torts his body into all man­ner of shapes, is hi­lar­i­ous — though Del­vaux is unim­pressed. Only af­ter I saw the film did I dis­cover that Thier­ree is, in fact, the grand­son of the great Char­lie. It’s some­how won­der­ful that the most beloved co­me­dian of the 20th cen­tury lives on in the work of his de­scen­dant.

Roschdy Zem’s lav­ishly made biopic be­gins in 1897 in north­ern France. While Footit is seek­ing em­ploy­ment, Padilla, us­ing the name Kalanka, is em­ployed by the Del­vaux Cir­cus as an African sav­age. His role is to frighten the small au­di­ences of coun­try folk who, pre­sum­ably, have never seen a black man be­fore. Brief flash­backs to his na­tive Cuba show that he was the son of a slave and that his father worked as a foot­man in the house of his white masters. When Footit sug­gests they be­come part­ners, and per­form a white-black com­edy act to­gether, Padilla is re­luc­tant at first; but the early, ten­ta­tive rou­tines, mostly in­volv­ing Footit chas­ing Cho­co­lat, as he’s now called, around the ring, strike a chord with au­di­ences so that even the grumpy Del­vaux is im­pressed. Also im­pressed is Camille (Alice de Lenc­que­saing), the cir­cus in­genue, who becomes Cho­co­lat’s lover. Be­fore long the pair are head­hunted by Joseph Oller (Olivier Gourmet) who runs the pres­ti­gious Nou­veau Cirque in the French cap­i­tal.

Footit and Cho­co­lat soon be­come fa­mous for their sim­ple slap­stick rou­tines. They’re paid well, and Cho­co­lat be­gins to sport fancy clothes, to drive a new­fan­gled au­to­mo­bile and to keep com­pany with a great many at­trac­tive women; when poor Camille shows up un­ex­pect­edly, he re­jects her — he hasn’t even opened the letters she sent him. He also has be­come ad­dicted to lau­danum and to gam­bling, and is deep in debt. Footit, mean­while, leads a quiet life off­stage, though one key scene sug­gests that he might be strug­gling with his sex­u­al­ity.

Life for Cho­co­lat changes abruptly when he’s ar­rested — fingered by the jeal­ous Mme Del­vaux (Noemie Lvovsky) — for fail­ing to have the cor­rect doc­u­ments. In prison he’s treated harshly but shares a cell with Vic­tor (Alex Descas), a rad­i­cal from Haiti, who brings home to him the bit­ter truth that his act is en­tirely pred­i­cated on the hu­mil­i­a­tion of a black man at the hands of a white man. Things will never be the same again, es­pe­cially af­ter Cho­co­lat meets Marie (Clotilde Hesme), a wid­owed nurse.

Mean­while the cin­ema, where so many clowns would find fame, was in its in­fancy. In one scene, the Lu­miere brothers, Au­guste and Louis (De­nis and Bruno Po­da­ly­des) ar­rive at the the­atre to record on film the Cho­co­lat-Footit rou­tine — a film that sur­vives to this day and that is shown at the end of Zem’s bi­og­ra­phy.

Mon­sieur Cho­co­lat is vis­ually hand­some and for the most part thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing. It’s a bit pain­ful to­day to laugh at the hu­mil­i­a­tion of a Ne­gro, which is the ba­sis of the com­edy, but the film acts as a re­minder as to how in­grained racism was in those days. The big­otry, which has Cho­co­lat fre­quently de­picted on posters as an ape, is dis­tress­ing: racial equal­ity has pro­gressed a long way, though still not enough, in the 100 years since the death of this great co­me­dian. Mon­sieur Cho­co­lat, First Girl I Loved, There have been count­less films about the pain and em­bar­rass­ment of young love, so low-bud­get in­de­pen­dent movie First Girl I Loved isn’t ex­actly orig­i­nal. But it does cap­ture very poignantly the awk­ward­ness and insecurity that oc­curs when one of the lovers isn’t cer­tain that the ob­ject of their af­fec­tions feels the same way.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter here is Anne (Dy­lan Gelula), a 17-year-old who at­tends a Los Angeles high school and lives with her crip­pled sin­gle mother (Pamela Ad­lon). While tak­ing pho­tos for the school year­book, Anne en­coun­ters Sasha (Bri­anna Hildebrand), who plays for the bas­ket­ball team. There’s an in­stant attraction, but how should Anne pro­ceed and how can she be cer­tain that Sasha feels the same way — even though she seems to be send­ing out en­cour­ag­ing sig­nals? Anne at­tempts to con­fide in her best friend, Clifton (Ma­teo Arias), who as­sumes Sasha is male. He’s also jeal­ous — though he never said so, it seems he was hop­ing one day that he and Anne would be an item.

In one of the film’s most pain­ful scenes, Clifton per­suades a clearly re­luc­tant Anne to come to bed with him; it’s a messy, un­sat­is­fac­tory way for her to lose her vir­gin­ity, and it’s not even cer­tain that it was con­sen­sual. At any rate, it makes Anne more con­vinced than ever that she’s not in­ter­ested in men.

Anne and Sasha spend an evening at a club, where they kiss on the dance floor; and they wind up in Sasha’s bed. But Sasha has se­ri­ous sec­ond thoughts the next day, de­cid­ing as firmly that she isn’t gay as Anne has de­cided that she is. The stage is set for some painfully em­bar­rass­ing con­fronta­tions and it all es­ca­lates un­til the school au­thor­i­ties be­come in­volved.

Writer-di­rec­tor Kerem Sanga han­dles this fairly sim­ple nar­ra­tive with ten­der­ness; there’s no nu­dity in the sex scenes, so this is noth­ing like the well-re­garded French les­bian drama, Blue is the Warm­est Colour, with its explicit se­quences. Gelula and Hildebrand are good, though per­haps the best per­for­mance comes from Arias as the frus­trated and clumsy Clifton.

The film’s main draw­back is its rather fussy struc­ture, which in­cor­po­rates flash­backs that are in­serted out of se­quence, mak­ing at times for need­less con­fu­sion. Oth­er­wise this is a small film worth seek­ing out.

Omar Sy as the epony­mous clown in left; Dy­lan Gelula in be­low left

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