Chevalier rights a historical wrong in bringing the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, to the big screen.
“The most talented man in Europe in horse-riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.” – President John Adams.
In a perfect world, we’d have seen the film in theaters last fall. It was one of four Searchlight Pictures films to hold some sort of premiere during TIFF. Where the other three films were released during the weeks and months to come, Searchlight held off on releasing Chevalier until this year. Kelvin Harrison Jr. delivers a strong performance in the film so this decision to hold is perplexing. At the same time, the studio had what they thought were strong awards contenders so I’m guessing that’s a reason. The late 1700s period setting means that this film will probably not be for everyone, regardless of the cast.
I lean more towards classic rock but growing up, the biggest classic music-era composers that I knew of were Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, and of course, the legendary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As for Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the French-African violinist-composer-fencer never came up. A lot of the blame should go to Napoleon Bonaparte for this. The French leader would reinstitute slavery and other policies, leading to the destruction of Bologne’s work. That the film is coming out now speaks to the importance of what’s been happening in recent years. A lot of forgotten historical events have been coming back to the forefront by way of film and TV: The 24th, the Tulsa Riots, etc. Interestingly enough, Stephen Williams is the director of the Watchmen episode.
Stefani Robinson’s script documents the rise and fall. Of course, the writer has to fill in gaps because of what we do and do not know due to history being unkind. I’d be curious to see what a documentary would look like. However, the narrative feature does its job and showing off his concerts and a love affair with Marie-Josephine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving). Their affair results in a pregnancy. This does not do any favors with Marie-Josephine’s family seeing as how she was married at the time. It is a marriage of the era since she was not in love with her husband. Of course, the kid is immediately taken away and killed.
Bologne was a man who rode the beat of his own drum as this film shows. He’s doing so during an era that would otherwise not even allow it. Born on a slave plantation, Bologne’s father would acknowledge him as his son, leading to a lifestyle that would otherwise be denied. There is a lot of racism on display in this film. It is not surprising–not even for a minute. The composer is denied a role as the Paris Opera conductor solely because he is Black. A brief postscript lets the audience know that he would lead an all-Black regiment during the French Revolution. But again, racism would rear its ugly head again under Napoleon.
The film depicts a friendship and later falling out with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and her court. And yet, for one shining moment, Bologne was a member of her court. If one goes on the French queen’s Wiki page, there is not a single word about her relationship with the composer. This speaks to the larger historical narrative that film, TV, and books are currently rectifying. She appointed him as her music director in 1775. During the same year, King Louis XVI would name him as the Paris Opera director, only for female artists to display their racism. How is it that Bologne could lead an all-Black regiment during the French Revolution only for Napoleon to make sure history denies him his due. It makes zero sense!
Chevalier allows an audience to discover the life and work of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after two centuries of being forgotten to history.
DIRECTOR: Stephen Williams
SCREENWRITER: Stefani Robinson
CAST: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Sian Clifford, Alex Fitzalan, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, and Minnie Driver
Searchlight Pictures released Chevalier in theaters on April 21, 2023. Grade: 3.5/5
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