*** (out of five)

Spectacular – indeed, from the two leads, virtuosic – performances, assured production design, an intriguing true story and an undeniably fun milieu only just manage to win a tug-of-war with a formulaic script, pedestrian direction and a shamefully obvious score in Monsieur Chocolat (which was simply called Chocolat in its native France). It’s a super-mainstream crowd-pleaser that glitters amiably like a shallow lake in the sun.

Omar Sy (a global star since The Intouchables, 2011) plays Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban slave performing as a scary “cannibal” in a provincial circus in France in the early 1900s. When the circus’ clown Footit (James Thierrée) faces the axe for an act considered old-hat, the two join forces to create a new act, to great acclaim and success in Belle Époque Paris. But Padilla is plagued by demons, including gambling and pride (more on that in a second) and his behaviour seriously jeopardises his success.

Thierrée – grandson of Charlie Chaplin and great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill – is an established, trained and highly skilled Clown, and it is not surprising to see him perform extraordinary physical comedy of the period. The wonderful surprise is seeing Sy, a physically massive man, match him elegantly in the film’s many, many clowning scenes, which appear to have been filmed without any trickery (such as CGI or doubling). Who knew? I don’t know whether Sy has a background in clowning or whether he learned everything for the part, but he is absolutely believable (helped by the reality of the situation, which was that Footit was the established clown who taught Padilla – “Monsieur Chocolat” – the art of clowning).

The evocation of the period – especially of the two circuses we inhabit – is lovely, but the script is simplistic and blunt: you see what’s coming every step of the way. There is very little context given for the more general treatment of black people in France at the time, and, troublingly, the message of the film – perhaps unavoidably, given the source material – seems to be that the secret to success is to shut up and stay in your box. Padilla’s downfall is driven by a growing sense of dignity and pride in his blackness. By demanding to be taken seriously, he loses everything. For an aspirational movie about a somewhat forgotten black pioneer, that’s pretty disheartening.

The actual Padilla and Footit.

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