Reviews of Monsieur Chocolat and Paris Can Wait.
A biopic about a circus star is brought to life by its leads and their grand physicality.
REVIEW — GEMMA GRACEWOOD MONSIEUR CHOCOLAT Directed by Roschdy Zem Opens June 29
You may never have heard of Chocolat, but if you have travelled in France or are a fan of La Belle Époque imagery, you almost certainly will have seen his image: a grotesque, exaggerated black clown with a red tuxedo, white-gloved hands and huge lips.
He was a Parisian superstar at the turn of last century, one half of the clown duo Foottit et Chocolat, who headlined the Nouveau Cirque, an upscale circus owned by a co-founder of the Moulin Rouge.
Cuban-born of an African slave, Rafael Padilla was himself taken as a slave to Spain. He made his way to France where, as the film tells it, he was discovered by George Foottit working in a grubby, provincial circus as a “scary African native”, Kananga. In the competitive world of clowning, Foottit sees dollar signs in the unique pairing of a black-and-white clown duo, renames Rafael “Chocolat”, and trains him in the art of the pratfall.
French film star Omar Sy (the stunning lead of The Intouchables) and Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, circus hero James Thierrée, are an exhilarating pair as Chocolat and Foottit, one of the first duos to establish the classic concept of “white clown and auguste”, a yin-yang partnership of uptight, traditional clown with happier, clumsier, lower-status fool. Monsieur Chocolat comes alive during their scenes together, the grand physicality of their comedy offset by backstage bickering and unspoken unhappiness.
The biopic is a problematic favourite among film genres. On one hand, a quality biographical drama is a sumptuous mix of period detail, atmospheric charm and Wikipedia high points, ideally with a satisfying turn by a mega-star in the title role. On the other, biopics are too often sanitised, onceover-lightly inspirational quote-fests, filmed in a gently
Chocolat turns to gambling and laudanum to keep himself entertained. The descent is heartbreaking.
All of the above is true of Monsieur Chocolat, but by virtue of its subject it is also very provocative and utterly resonant. In an alternate universe, this film may have ended at the height of Chocolat’s fame, praising the people who plucked him from obscurity and the Parisian society that elevated a former slave to a circus superstar.
But Monsieur Chocolat allows for a deeper look at things. With nobody to empathise with him, and his ambitions suppressed by a society that is happy to have him play the fool but no more, Chocolat turns to gambling and laudanum to keep himself entertained. The only way is down, and the descent is heartbreaking.
Anne doesn’t appear to have a lot of agency; ‘finding happiness’ appears to be defined as ‘choosing between two men’.
PARIS CAN WAIT Directed by Eleanor Coppola Opens July 20
Eleanor Coppola, matriarch of the famous film family, has an abundance of skills: painting, costume making, sculpture, photography, mothering, multiple publications of her notes and journals. Now, at the newsworthy age of 81, the straight-talking, no-bullshit member of the family has finally directed her own feature.
It’s tempting to see something autobiographical in the set-up, beginning as it does at the Cannes Film Festival. Coppola certainly knows her subject. Anne (Diane Lane) is married to Michael (Alec Baldwin), a terribly busy and rather miserly film producer who can’t seem to prioritise their marriage. When an earache prevents her from flying with Michael to a film shoot in Budapest, a producing partner of his, Jacques (Arnaud Viard), offers to drive Anne to Paris, where Michael will meet her later. Jacques, a deviously cheerful French playboy, takes the long way round, leading Anne on a gluttonous odyssey of foodporn hot spots.
Along the way, there’s a predictable culture clash between the wayward Frenchman and the uptight femme Américaine, as Jacques harasses Anne about her marriage and tries to get her to loosen up. He’s actually a bit of a dick and even though Anne is aware enough to give him the side-eye, it’s kind of offensive to watch these white upper-class folk fill their faces while complaining about their lives. On the other hand, happiness and what constitutes it are always topics worth being interrogated, and money can certainly buy you caviar, but it can’t guarantee that your husband will meet you in Paris as he promised.
Paris Can Wait is a little ploddy, and Anne doesn’t appear to have a lot of agency; “finding happiness” appears to be defined as “choosing between two men”. Some sad stories from the past are dredged up to engineer a bit of weak third-act drama, and the whole thing finishes with a lame Before Sunrise- type gamble.
And yet, it’s not a mean film, and it’s lovely to look at. There are certainly worse things to do in a New Zealand winter than spend 90 minutes in the dark imagining yourself tripping from Provence to Paris while drinking an Auckland mortgage’s worth of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
LEFT— Omar Sy (left) and James Thierrée portray a yin-yang partnership.