Review: In ‘Chevalier,’ an erased figure gets a lush biopic
Apr 19, 2023, 8:11 AM
(Searchlight Pictures via AP)
Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was an extraordinarily accomplished man in Marie Antoinette’s France. He was a scholar, a fencer, a virtuoso violinist and a famous and sought-after composer who wrote string quartets, symphonies and operas. His influence was vast, but he was all but erased from history books because Bologne was also Black, born in 1745 in the French colony of Guadeloupe to a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese teenager.
At the height of his celebrity and renown in France, he even put his name forth to lead the Royal Academy of Music at the Paris Opera. Though qualified for the prestigious post, his appointment was blocked. He would later become a revolutionary and lead an all-Black regiment. Three years after his death in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte reestablished slavery in France and many of his works were destroyed.
It’s his story — or a fictionalized version of it with the requisite drama, romance, scandal and tears to fill in the many gaps in his biography — that’s told in the new film “Chevalier,” which opens in theaters this week with Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role. In this France, everyone has English accents and he’s introduced having a very public violin-off with a very flustered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in front of a large audience. Though this makes for a rousing start to the film, this is very unlikely to have happened, like quite a bit in the film. But it’s inspired by something real — scholars have posited that Mozart would have been well aware of Bologne and was perhaps even directly influenced by his string concertos.
These and many more embellishments are easy to forgive, however. For one, they’re necessary to fill in the vast holes in a history that was purposefully neglected. It’s also entertainment that functions just as well if you have found yourself at “Chevalier” not knowing that it is inspired by truth.
In the film, directed by Stephen Williams, Bologne’s father recognizes him as a musical prodigy and sends him to a boarding school in France to nurture his talent. This is also likely a fabrication and apparently it was more common than the film shows for the fathers of mixed-race children to send them to these schools. But at school he distinguishes himself in spite of resistance and racism — his father leaves him with a haunting requirement that excellence is his only defense. After a tense bout with a champion fencer, he catches the attention of Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who gives him the title of nobility.
Harrison and the script (written by “Atlanta” scribe Stefani Robinson) make Bologne quite arrogant, at least at first. He made incredible strides in French society and had the talent to back it up. When he decides to put his name in the hat for the Paris Opera position, he rebuffs the advances of an older star, Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver), and fixates on a younger talent Marie-Joséphine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving) who he later starts an ill-advised affair with while writing an opera for her. “Fleabag’s” Sian Clifford is a nice presence too as an opera producer and Marie-Joséphine’s cousin. It is quite a bit of soap opera fabrication, that’s a bit melodramatic but not ineffective.
And it’s all serving to get Bologne, who had been quite content playing the necessary games to thrive within the system, to reach a moment of radicalization and revolt (along with much of France) as he grapples with injustices and prejudices. The arrival of his mother helps shatter his illusions too.
In the end, “Chevalier” may be more fiction than history, but it’s worthwhile with effective acting, tension (helped by Kris Bowers’ score) and a decadently beautiful production. And it is especially important in a moment of fanciful “Bridgertons” to focus the lens on important people of color who did actually exist and who have been forgotten and erased.
“Chevalier,” a Searchlight Pictures release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “thematic content, suggestive material, some strong language, violence.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.