Her viewing this month takes TV3’s movie expert Kate Rodger to the circus in France in the late 1800s, to learn the story of an inter-racial clown double-act.
In the month of Bastille, let’s celebrate French cinema with a film from Roschdy Zem and starring The Intouchables’ standout Omar Sy. This is the true story of celebrated French clowns Foottit and Chocolat, who took Parisian high society by storm in the late 1800s. It’s a story of hopes and dreams, empowerment and subjugation, and of inherent, open, institutionalised, unquestionable racism.
The story begins in a small country circus where the main attraction is Kananga the Cannibal – a fierce, terrifying, black savage from deepest Africa. It’s a performance Rafael (Omar Sy) doesn’t particularly enjoy but, like they say, it pays the rent. When fading star George Foottit sees him perform, on the lookout for something or someone to spruce up his own act, he sees something else in Kananga; he sees “Chocolat”, a clown.
They will take the little circus by storm, and very soon will be plucked from the provinces and onto the stages of Paris.
Their relationship is the backbone of the film, and it’s complicated. Foottit enforces his role as teacher, but it feels like trainer. He’s the boss, but it feels like master. He knows their success depends on them both working together as a team, but the more that success and fame grows, the bigger impact it has on them – especially Rafael.
This is a sad, dark, true story – the tears of a clown can be a terrible thing. Chocolat’s fight to be treated as an equal will take a lifetime, and not just his, and confronting his own inner demons is just as big a fight.
So while this story is clearly worthy of the telling, what the film ultimately lacks is confidence. It feels almost too small for the story and fails to really pick up momentum and grab the audience. Important enough to tell, it is, unfortunately, not told memorably enough to have a lasting impact. I found myself losing interest in parts, challenging my commitment.
So it came down to Foottit and Chocolat to save the day. Their performances are excellent, both main players inhabiting their dual roles of man and clown with passion and restraint – in fact James Thierrée won the César this year for Best Supporting Actor for his role.
The clown acts themselves are of their time but feel fresh, delivered with energy and joie de vivre, a reminder of the beauty in the art of clowning around.