Somehow I spent the week in France, vicariously tripping through salons and studios among royals and revolutionaries. This week’s cover story on Machine Dazzle creating costumes for Opera Lafayette’s production of French opéra-ballet Io entailed a flash immersion in the pre-Revolution era of Madame de Pompadour, and music by composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Then, courtesy of one of those editorial coincidences that happen more often than you’d think, it was off to post-Revolution Paris — onstage, at least — to review Les Misérables, and watch the rebels try to hold the barricades, before popping back to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette — onscreen, at least — as depicted with wit and relish in Chevalier (★★★★☆).
A straightforward, though fictionalized, chronicle of the brief but brilliant career of virtuoso musician and classical composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier traffics in those familiar French settings and personages, like iconic queen Marie Antoinette, who figures prominently in Bologne’s story.
But unlike any of those films, plays, or operas previously seen set in the 1700s, this drama, directed by Stephen Williams from a shrewd script by Stefani Robinson, follows a Black man among the royal court. As a simple reversal of cinema’s almost complete omission of stories about free people of color before Abolition, Chevalier makes a profound statement, backed up by solid production and storytelling.
The story’s not complicated. The son of a French plantation owner and an enslaved woman, Bologne, portrayed with charm and authority by Waves star Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is brought to Paris by his father, who sponsors the music prodigy’s studies at a prestigious academy. By the time Bologne rakishly interrupts Mozart (Joseph Prowen) performing a private concert and challenges the composer to a violin duel, he’s already established his name as a virtuoso.
He wins the backing of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who dubs him Chevalier de Saint-Georges — though loyalties are fickle in this court, and Revolution appears to be brewing. During increasingly tense times, Bologne vies to become director of the famed Paris Opera by creating a new opus, starring his current infatuation, ingénue soprano Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), society wife of sneering Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas), who just happens to be an avowed White supremacist.
Bologne also lands on the bad side of the slightly less talented soprano La Guimard, played to the villainous hilt by Minnie Driver as a more refined but no less vicious version of her Will & Grace harlot Lorraine Finster.
The movie applies a fairly heavy hand to its villains, but what it lacks in subtlety it compensates for with gorgeous design and photography, a remarkable care and attention to the music — be it Bologne’s, Mozart’s, or the frenzied strings of the film’s composer Kris Bowers — and appealing performances across the board.
Harrison and Weaving generate heated chemistry, despite her character being written as too naïve by half. Ronke Adékoluejo and Fleabag‘s Sian Clifford lend excellent support as, respectively, Bologne’s straight-talking mother Nanon, and his excitable producer Madame De Genlis, while Boynton offers an assured Marie Antoinette, who, in her arrogance doesn’t see the guillotine coming.
In a bracing scene, the queen also reminds Chevalier that, in an instant, he can go from being a man of France to being merely a Negro. Bologne is reminded often, sometimes forcefully, that all he has can easily be taken away from him, and that he can be treated like a man, or like a Black man.
And, no, it isn’t subtle, but neither is a roomful of elected officials and officers of the law recorded in a conference room in Oklahoma lamenting the fact you can’t lynch a Black man like in the good ol’ days. “Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.”
This is America in 2023, centuries and continents, and several revolutions removed from Joseph Bologne, but the song is still the same, the struggle is real, and there’s a reason it’s taken this long for Chevalier de Saint-Georges to enter the spotlight.
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