Bittersweet taste of an entertainer’s life
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