9 January 2017 | robert-temple-1
A superb and tragic tale of France's first black clown
This is a terrific film, with superb performances and direction, based upon the amazing but tragic true life story of Rafael Padilla, known as 'Chocolat', a black colonial slave who escaped to France as a child and became famous there as a circus clown. The director is Roschdy Zem, a well known actor in France who has only directed four films. He directs this film with such thorough professionalism that one could readily believe that he had really directed forty rather than four. The two lead actors are Omar Sy (that being a Senegalese surname, but he was born in France), who plays Chocolat, and James Thiérrée, who plays the older clown who discovers him, trains him, and becomes his partner, known as Footit. I must point out immediately that this is the same James Thiérrée who is such a genius stage performer, who tours the world with astounding surrealistic circus acts, and is perhaps the most highly regarded person of his kind in the world. He is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin and looks exactly like him (I mean Chaplin in real life, not 'the Little Tramp'). I first saw James and his sister Aurélie (another well known solo performer now) perform onstage when they were tiny children, appearing with their parents, Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée. Of all the Chaplin children, Victoria is the one who carried on the pure Chaplin talents for mime and acrobatics with the utmost genius, and her son has even surpassed her. Victoria's most astonishing feat in her own touring circus act was to fold herself up so that she could be shut into a moderately-sized suitcase! They really are an amazing family (and in Victoria's case, easy perhaps to take on holiday in the baggage rack). But Victoria and her husband are very, very private. They do not mix in the Paris world of celebs at all, and when I first had to contact her about something, two Paris celebs who 'knew everybody' and I thought could help me find her told me 'No one knows them.' James however seems to have an infinite number of friends who cluster around him enthusiastically, smothering him with admiration and bonhomie. He shows no signs of being surly or grumpy in his person, so it is all the more remarkable how wholly convincing he is in this film as Footit, a man who was always depressing and surly. In other words, James is a superb actor as well as everything else that he is. Omar Sy is magnificent as Chocolat, as he effortlessly glides between pathos and wild slapstick comedy. He too is a leading talent in France. So the film works, and comes together extremely well. Because James and Omar Sy are naturally practised and skilled at what they are doing, their circus acts are incredible. James not only plays someone who is, but himself is, a thorough circus pro who can do anything and everything, and has done so in public since at least the age of five or six. He can do clowning, acrobatics, high wire, trapeeze, mime, you name it. And he writes and plans and directs all his own shows with his small troupe. He is what is called THE REAL THING, and so is this film.