Chevalier tells the story of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, here immortalized by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Bologne was the unwanted bastard son of wealthy farmer Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, borne out of wedlock after Georges raped one of his black slaves. At the age of seven, Joseph was forcibly separated from his mother and sent away to a Jesuit boarding school.

Joseph Bologne turned out to be a bona fide prodigy with extraordinary skills as a violinist and composer, in addition to his numerous accolades in fencing, dancing, horseback riding, and more. So it was that in 1761, at the age of 16, Joseph Bologne had grown so incredibly accomplished that he was lifted up from the commoners and granted the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He quickly became a prominent figure in French high society, close friends with everyone from freaking Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (here played by Joseph Prowen) to none other than Queen Marie Antoinette herself (here played by Lucy Boynton). de Saint-George was even set for the prestigious top job as director of the Paris Opera, until he was denied the position at the last minute on account of his race. That was in 1776 — a busy time for France, and for the world in general.

Shortly afterward, the French Revolution happened and Bologne stopped using his “Chevalier” title somewhere around 1789. He went on to a military career in the French National Guard and the French Revolutionary Army up until he died in 1799 at the age of 53. His exact cause of death is unclear, as his death certificate was lost in a fire. In fact, after Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery and banned Bologne’s music in 1802, much of Bologne’s life and work was lost to history. Even now, in 2023, Joseph Bologne remains an obscure figure, only recently rediscovered and re-evaluated by modern historians. And when so much about him comes from unreliable and incomplete sources or gossip rags from the time of freaking Marie Antoinette, it’s not easy separating fact from fiction or the man from the legend.

All of this going on makes it difficult to figure out where I even want to start in discussing this movie.

Let’s start with the obvious point that Bologne is a terribly lonely man. Leaving aside the fact that he’s a bona fide genius with no peers in music or fencing, there’s the obvious matter of his skin color. There are no other black people in this highest strata of France, he has no friends who aren’t white, he can never marry a white woman without breaking the law, and he can never marry a black woman of lesser station (ie: any of them) without giving up his title. So while Joseph might just be the most sought-after bachelor in French society, there’s no reason why he should even entertain the notion of any long-term intimate relationship.

This brings me to the various love triangles. Samara Weaving plays the Marquise Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, an aspiring ingenue with a heavenly voice for opera. Trouble is, she’s married to the Marquis Marc Rene (Martin Csokas), a military man who’s all about overbearing control and enforcing rule of law by force of brute strength… he’s a fascist. It’s really that simple, he’s an absolute fascist. But Marie-Josephine wants to pursue her passion in opera, she wants to defy her overbearing and heartless husband, she finds common ground with the social misfit Bologne, and the two start working on a production that leads to a whirlwind extramarital affair. However badly you think this will end, it’s worse.

Further complicating matters is Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver), an aging opera star who starts hitting on Bologne in the hopes that he can keep her relevant. When he sees right through this ploy and turns her down in favor of Marie-Josephine, that’s when Marie-Madeleine turns into a full-blown racist and devotes her career to taking him down. This is emblematic of the status quo’s greater attitude toward Bologne: They’ll only keep him around while it’s convenient. So long as he’s handsome and successful and pleasing to be around, he’s a French noble; but the minute he outlives his usefulness, as soon as somebody has to choose their own skin over his, as soon as he rises above his station with delusions of power over white people, he’s just another uppity black guy.

This brings us to Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), Bologne’s mother. Upon the death of Bologne’s father, Nanon was graciously set free and goes to live with her son in Paris. Trouble is, Nanon has no idea who or what her son has become since he was taken from her at age 7, and Bologne’s life in French society is completely alien to her. Thus she’s trying to reconnect with the Creole boy who’s no longer there, bringing him back to roots he no longer wants any part of.

And then a funny thing happens.

Over the back half of the movie, piece by piece, those of French high society start taking back everything they ever gave Bologne. Granted, Bologne is partly the author of his own undoing by way of his own ambition and hubris. Even so, the point stands that his title is increasingly useless and he’s left with less and less until he’s got basically nothing to lose. The doors of high society are shut and his old friends will no longer stand by him. There comes a point when Bologne can no longer go to any of his friends in high places, but there are still many in low places ready and willing to accept him.

Basically put, Marie Antoinette and all her French nobles are creating their own worst enemy and they don’t even know it.

Remember, this is all taking place against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette is only a few steps away from the guillotine and she knows it. Thus every rich white asshole in the monarchy is running scared, desperate to assert their authority and crush these purported traitors threatening to destroy the status quo from within. Not unlike how black people are supposedly going to rise up and assert themselves until there are no white people left.

In summary, Joseph Bologne is a half-black man with the power to spread the message of revolution by way of extraordinary music to stir the hearts of mankind. Put even more simply, the filmmakers present Bologne as the face of the future. And all these different themes about racism, class disparity, and the power of artistic expression all dovetail together so impeccably well that it actually works.

The star here is of course Kelvin Harrison Jr. — it speaks volumes that the character is supposed to be a charismatic genius who’s effortlessly good at everything he touches, and Harrison is powerful enough to sell that. Even better, he does it without losing any of the character’s vulnerability or pathos. This is dynamic career-defining stuff.

I can also praise Lucy Boynton, here playing Marie Antoinette as a fair-weather friend who’s perfectly genial and agreeable when things are going great. But when things start going sour, she’s desperate for everyone to like her and making all these entitled power moves because her life literally depends on keeping a job that she fell into with no idea how to actually govern. It’s a delicate balance and Boynton plays it well.

Marton Csokas is a lot of fun to hate, ditto for Minnie Driver. Sian Clifford does serviceably well in a supporting role, though her character — Bologne’s opera producer, who’s also his go-between with her cousin Marie-Josephine — is mostly an all-purpose plot device. Ronke Adekoluejo doesn’t really start firing on all cylinders until the third act, when she’s most badly needed to bring some warmth to the proceedings.

But then there’s Samara Weaving. Much as I love Weaving, and she’s putting Herculean effort onto the screen, something about her performance here just didn’t click for me. A lot of that probably had to do with the cliched nature of the character — put her in drag and it’s basically a retread of Gwyneth Paltrow from Shakespeare in Love. And without going too deeply into spoilers, there are at least one or two hugely explosive moments for her character that happen entirely offscreen, which doesn’t do her any favors. Perhaps most importantly, while Weaving’s chemistry with Harrison is okay, it’s not quite as sizzling as it could have or should have been. That sums it up pretty well, really: Weaving’s fine, but nowhere near strong enough to elevate Marie-Josephine to where she needed to be.

But then we have Kris Bowers, the unsung hero of the film. I can’t imagine the pressure that comes with scoring a film about a musical prodigy, but Bowers delivers a beautiful score with this picture (with heavy use of violins, natch). In point of fact, the musical scenes are fantastic across the board. Between the camerawork, the editing, the performances, the music itself… everything is so dynamic and expressive that it all serves to advance the story and tell us everything we need to know without a word of dialogue spoken. Captivating stuff.

Chevalier is nothing new when broken down into its individual parts. The racial trauma aspect, the forbidden love aspect, the commentary on class disparity, the development arc of a main character toppled from the height of fame and success by his own pride and backstabbing friends… each individual part is something we’ve seen umpteen times in too many other Oscar-bait films. But the filmmakers succeeded in putting all of these parts together into something greater than their sum.

And anyway, we’re talking about a film set in Marie Antoinette’s France — NOTHING about the period was subtle.

It’s deeply impressive how the various themes help to reinforce each other, conveyed by superlative visuals and fantastic music all centered around a fantastic performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. It’s stylish, it’s sexy, it’s aggressively bold in its statements and ideas. It’s not a perfect film, and keeping it away from the end-of-year awards contenders was probably a smart move, but this is definitely one worth looking into.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Chevalier

  1. And I thought this was just going to be a biopic about a lesser-known historical figure. Good to hear that it doesn’t falter with the social/class commentary.

    Also I won’t lie – when I saw the first trailer and Bologne was about to start playing, part of me really hoped he would go into a rendition of “Devil Went Down To Georgia”

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