THE STORY – The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Joseph Bologne rises to improbable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, complete with a love affair and falling out with Marie Antoinette.
THE CAST – Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Marton Csokas, Alex Fitzalan & Minnie Driver
THE TEAM – Stephen Williams (Director) & Stefani Robinson (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
History, as the saying goes, is written by the winners. If that’s true – and by all evidence, it seems to be – then Joseph Bologne was always destined to be forgotten. The illegitimate son of a wealthy, married planter and one of his Senegalese slaves in the French colony of Guadeloupe, Joseph was brought by his father to France at the age of seven and enrolled in a private academy at the age of thirteen. He became a virtuoso violinist, composer, and fencer, a favorite of society ladies (whom he bedded often) and Marie Antoinette herself. But as a free man of color, he was never really a full member of the upper-class Parisian society, even getting blocked from a position with the Paris Opéra because three of the Opéra’s leading ladies petitioned the Queen, saying that they could not possibly take orders from a mulatto. Though he composed symphonic music and operas until the end of his life, he was never truly welcomed back into the highest echelons of French society after that. Stephen Williams’s biopic “Chevalier” – the title granted to Bologne upon beating the fencing master Alexandre Picard, who had been publicly mocking the student as an “upstart mulatto” – is more than a mere attempt to set the historical record straight. It is a film that turns the French classical music composer into a thrillingly contemporary figure. This film does right by the historical times in which it is set while making that world recognizable and even tangible to its contemporary audience.
Stefani Robinson’s literate screenplay makes the parallels between late 1700s France and the present day crystal clear early on. French society is divided between those who want Africans and their descendants gone from their country and those who acknowledge they are here to stay. In simpler terms: those who wish to go backward and those who see the world moving forward and know that France must move forward with it. Bologne (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is introduced in two duels – first with swords against Mozart, then with swords against Picard in front of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) – with a brief interlude showing how the young Bologne’s father brought him to the French academy. We see every little detail in how people react to him and how he disarms their gasps, sneers, and jeers with his talent and charisma. When Marie anoints Bologne as Chevalier, it is easy to see precisely how and why this will go well for neither her nor Bologne, even as her statement that he is “a true man of France” can hardly be denied. The film’s plot revolves around Bologne’s attempt to become the director of the Paris Opéra, to be decided by a contest wherein Bologne and Christoph Gluck (a composer from Eastern Europe) will each write an opera, with the writer of the one judged to be the best winning the position. The stakes attached to a single performance, complete with a romantic affair between the piece’s writer and its married star, makes “Chevalier” feel like a more socially-conscious version of “Shakespeare in Love.” The choice to emulate one of the swiftest, most entertaining period films of the past thirty years is a smart one, and the shift from romantic comedy to drama makes sense given the historical period and the real life of the film’s subject.
Williams is fully alive to the promise of the screenplay and has ensured that the film is as handsomely appointed and excitingly made as possible. The sumptuous sets make the luxurious drawing rooms and theaters of Paris come alive and are outdone only by Oliver Garcia’s jaw-dropping costumes. Kris Bowers’s score is pure momentum, using some of Bologne’s music as inspiration for a score that keeps pushing everything – including the music of Bologne’s time – forward to ever more exciting ends. Michael Abels’s orchestrations for the pieces of Bologne’s music that we do hear in full are similarly exciting, even if you’re not an opera or classical music fan. That is because the filmmaking itself keeps you interested and invested in both the music and the story. John Axelrad’s thrilling editing and Jess Hall’s invigorating camerawork operate in tandem to create sequences of exhilarating cinema. Williams’s vision for the film is clear and consistent throughout – everything is classically structured and produced, but the energy behind it all is utterly contemporary.
Naturally, the all-star cast helps with this as well. Everyone offers something special: Minnie Driver makes the opera diva La Guimard’s cattiness always feel rooted in her own insecurities as a woman aging out of society’s favor, grasping at whatever straws she can to keep what shreds of power she has. Boynton turns in one of cinema’s most dynamic performances of Hollywood’s favorite French royal, reveling in Antoinette’s blithe disregard for anything other than her own whims while never once forgetting the ruthless spine of steel needed to survive as royalty in this time period as long as she did. Marton Csokas exercises restraint to terrifying ends as the evil Marquis de Montalembert, the husband of Bologne’s desired star for his opera, played with sly smarts by Samara Weaving. Weaving continues to impress as a performer, continually finding interestingly telling line readings and surprising depth in each character she plays. As great as everyone is, though, the film belongs to Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as Bologne. The young actor has been steadily making a claim as the most outstanding actor of his generation, and this is another strong piece of evidence that he deserves the title. His considerable charisma has never been more readily apparent, but he does not rest on that alone. Harrison, Jr.’s performance here is one of remarkable depth, especially as he has to balance multiple sides of Bologne’s persona – the genius musician, the dangerous swordsman, the son of a white man, and his Black slave, the member of the Queen’s court, and the burgeoning abolitionist he becomes by the film’s rousing end. It’s a complex performance of a complex man, one that holds the film together as much as the solid technical elements do. It’s the performance, and the film, that its real-life subject deserves. Considering how rarely that happens, “Chevalier” is cause for celebration.