Among the prozzies and revellers and the demi-monde painted by Toulouse Lautrec, you will sometimes find the striking figure of a solitary African.
No mere incidental inclusion, he was Rafael Padilla. Born into slavery in Cuba, he escaped from his masters in Spain and made a name for himself as a circus clown in France. Roschdy Dem’s beautiful movie tells his tragic tale. In the evocative opening sequences we see him (Omar Sy) playing the wild man from the jungles for frightened rural audiences. One night he is taken on as a partner by George Footit (James Thierrée), a once-famous clown who is on the skids. They are an immediate sensation and are lured to Paris where, as Footit et Chocolat, their act soon becomes the talk of the town.
Sy, who was so charismatic in Untouchable (2011), again fills the screen with his magnetic presence and he is perfectly complemented by Thierrée’s quiet but no less compelling support. As a coloured man in Paris at the turn of the century, Chocolat was feted to the same degree that he was despised. Ever aware of his standing in society, he was shrewd enough to take advantage of his colour without ever accepting the racism, both overt and passive, to which he was exposed. He lived the high life as a ladies’ man and celebrity, dressing as a dandy, buying an automobile and frequenting gambling dens, where he was regularly off his face on laudanum. In contrast, the secretive Footit played it straight while exploiting Chocolat for every centime he could.
It is an oft repeated story and you can see the crash that Chocolat is headed for as his excesses and outsider status begin to take their toll on him. Success can sometimes crush a man more completely than failure – especially a man who believes that he has liberated himself from the shackles of conformity and risen above his perceived station. Like many comics, Chocolat wanted to do drama and fittingly he is cast in the role of Othello. ‘I have served the state too well,’ the Moor laments.