I am a director, playwright, and theatre critic with a Masters in Writing for Performance. You can check out my my portfolio and musings at www.samsaradunston.blogspot.com.au
Published June 19th 2017
Clowning becomes serious business
Monsieur Chocolatis a funny, heartbreaking, and thoughtful film opening on 29 June. The film looks at one of the most successful clown pairings in France at the turn of the last century (Foottit and Chocolat) and what makes it significant is it was one of the first truly black and white pairings in history.
I will begin by saying I really loved most of Monsieur Chocolat. I laughed harder than I ever have and there is no doubt the first half contains some of the best clowning I have ever seen. I do need to add a cautionary note though. Do not go away from the film thinking this is in any way a historically accurate representation of the pair as individuals, although there is high-degree of accuracy about their clowning routines.
Monsieur Chocolat is a French film with subtitles but don't be put off by that. It is about clowning which needs no language, and to be honest, we have so much exposure to French in our day to day lives I didn't need to follow the subtitles religiously to understand what was going on. At one point I even forgot they were there.
The story supposedly chronicles the rise and fall of the clown pairing of Chocolat (Omar Sy) and Foottit (James Thierree). Most of what makes this film such a great success is the incredible clowning skills of Sy and Thierree, although with Thierree's pedigree as grandson of Charlie Chaplin and great-grandson of Eugene O'Neill anything less would be unthinkable.
This version of history was originally created by Sy, Thieree and Cyril Gely. It was then further adapted by director Roschdy Zem et al and with every iteration, it has moved further away from the truth, but perhaps closer to a relevant modern social critique.
The movie begins with Chocolat as a cannibal in a freak show style travelling circus. Foottit is also with the circus troupe. Foottit is supposed to be a famous clown whose star is nearly burnt out and even the owner of this flea-bitten hovel of debatable amusement isn't interested in his offerings. Desperate to regain his fame and fortune Foottit grasps at an idea which is absolutely revolutionary for its time. He invites Chocolat (at that time called Kananga) to pair with him as a true black Auguste against his White Clown and history is made.
Inherited from Commedia dell'arte, the black clown (Auguste) and the White Clown have traditionally paired together to create comedy routines. White Clown is the Everyman trying to get things done and Auguste is the fool. Traditionally Auguste is played with a black masque or black face. Foottit's great idea was to have a real black Auguste. This part of the film is one of the few historically accurate facts. Chocolat apprenticed under the Auguste Tony Grice although it never occurred to Grice that an Afro-Cuban could ever actually play the clown archetype himself. It is in this moment of career elevation for Chocolat where the main themes of the film start to emerge.
Illustration of Chocolat and Foottit by Renee Vincent
Zem explores the natural relationship of Auguste as the lower status and the position of people of African descent in French society at the turn of the 20th century and how centuries of clowning had reinforced those stereotypes (Auguste is always the character of lowest status). The film Monsieur Chocolat explores an irresistible need in Chocolat to mirror his professional fame with an equality in real life. As Chocolat takes on more and more of the trappings of 'white' wealth and fame, he is juxtaposed against an exhibition of African natives penned in at an animal fair, supposedly going about their daily life for the edification of European society. It is something akin to a real life taxidermical exhibition and possibly the most horrifying moment in the film. The film is very solid and as I said earlier, hilarious when it comes to the clowning. The momentum does get mired as the fancifulness of the storytelling gets tangled. The solution for the filmmakers is to just jump straight to Chocolat's death which leave a slew of questions unanswered (and unanswerable).
I recently reviewed the film Churchill and if these two films are an example, there appears to be a tendency to corrupt the true histories of significant people in order to push personal agendas. There is no problem with using art to social commentary - I believe that is what it is for. I do feel there is a problem when the detour of fact is so significant as to be almost unrecognisable and not inform the audience this has happened. Using history as an artistic vehicle is fine, but people tend to read film in particular with an assumption of truthfulness if the characters really existed as people. It is dangerous territory and one which requires a higher degree of ethics than seems to be currently practised. Having said that, Monsieur Chocolat is a film which not only tells an important story about bigotry but also gives us a wonderful insight into the emergence of modern clowning and circus. Go and see it and have a laugh and a gasp. When you leave you will look around with new eyes and hopefully a new vision for the future.