It should come as little shock these days how diminutive our knowledge of the world and our place in it really is, not in a celestial sense, but in the very real, tangible historical terrestrial way. Especially in the United States, there’s a sense of European exceptionalism as the forefathers of the country came to this continent to save it from heathens and themselves from religious persecution. This takes the form of Christopher Columbus and the “finding” of America, a myth that whitewashes the trauma and genocide of Indigenous people. Or stories like that of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, in which decedents of slavery still grapple with the denials of what happened to them and their ancestors to the point that it was easier for the former slave masters and their families to denounce the existence of ships like the Clotilda than do right by the people who still suffer today. Or perhaps that of Joseph Bologne, a gifted multi-talent who lived during the era of Mozart, but whose music was lost to history due to classism and racism. Perhaps in hopes to turn this around comes the Stefani Robinson-written (Atlanta/What We Do in the Shadows) and Stephen Williams-directed (Watchmen/How to Get Away with Murder) dramatic offering of Chevalier (also titled: Chevalier: The Untold True Story), the late-stage telling of Bologne’s life, exploring how despite the notion that true talent will always rise to the top, rules like these are negotiable as long as they exist within systems meant to uplift the few versus the many.
Pre-revolution France, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is widely-regarded as the one of the most gifted musicians in the country. Driven to be exceptional so that he can never be struck down, Joseph’s talents led him to become close friends with Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and a member of her court via the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. To achieve the greatest heights in French music, he aspires to be the head of the Opera House so that his vision will guide French music into the forefront of art and all of Europe. In his bid for the position, he meets the talented singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) whom he hopes will be the star of his new composition, if only he can convince her husband, Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas) to allow it. Given the country’s burgeoning disdain for the monarchy and other ideological grudges, the Chevalier’s exceptionalism may not be enough to achieve all he desires.
Chevalier opens with an opening salvo which sets the rhythm and tone for what follows. A crowd attends a Mozart (Joseph Prowen) performance, the audience calling out their requests for tunes (when Mozart opens the floor to it), providing a reminder that the classy concert halls we’ve come to know them as were really just the rock shows of their day with Mozart being the premiere. In this scene, used prominently in the marketing, Williams and Robinson illustrate that the worlds of then and now aren’t so dissimilar, even if what one wears or how one speaks may have changed via location and time. Especially as Joseph makes himself known, requesting a song and then asking to join the illustrious composer/performer, Williams and Robinson are able to convey to the in-film and home- or theater-viewing audience the sort of bravado and arrogance that Joseph possesses only to be positively blown away as Harrison Jr.’s performance turns on the juice so that a duet of violins takes the form of a contest in which we all come to know that the perceived arrogance is undoubtedly earned. This opening immediately makes the audience wonder why we’re not familiar with Joseph Bologne with the rest of the brisk runtime (totaling 102 minutes before credits) answering that question. The answer is both simple and complex with the script and direction seemingly navigating the issues so that neither the subject of the film nor the supporting characters come out entirely clean, themselves stuck in a system designed and propagated by those in power.
What does this mean? In brief: white patriarchy and racism.
It would’ve been easy for Williams and Robinson both to make the case that Bolonge, the son of a slave and a plantation owner, to be a victim of the story, absent agency as he’s pit against one system or another, reduced to a gifted performer settling for whatever attention he’s given. That’s one version of the tale and it would be reductive and far less interesting. Instead, the script specifically integrates and interrogates the ways in which those who benefit from systems of class and race take advantage, going so far as to place others under their heels in order to keep what small measure of power they have. This doesn’t meant that they do it with glee, but there is a sense of palatable awareness which makes for a frequently painful watch. As people are keen to say these days, “it’s 2023 and we’re still dealing with xx,” and yes, yes we are. With redlining, political philandering, and the constant clamor for the lowest common denominator, we’re still seeing laws enacted that do more than restrict criminals but also innocent individuals who have committed no crime other than being gender noncomforming and/or not white. In the story of France, history tells us what happens to the real Marie Antoinette and, according to Chevalier, this is partially because she wants so desperately to hold onto her throne versus do what’s right by the people or her friend. It’s a very intentional declaration that Antoinette is the very same White Woman™ we see now in political parties who will align themselves with those who will degrade and harm them in private because it will keep them in a seat of authority. The script also makes a case for the ignorance of the white community toward others via an early conversation between Weaving’s (Bill & Ted Face the Music/Babylon) Marie-Josephine and Joseph when she goads him about why he’s not married, proclaiming his fame keeps his bed too full to settle down when, in fact, it’s because, as a Black man, he’s not allowed to marry within his class and to marry a Black woman would result in the loss of his title. His whole life summed up in seconds: I am a part of this world only as someone else allows it. Despite his fame, despite his glory, he is deemed a foreigner of dirty blood who cannot be trusted but is put up with due to his glorious music. In essence, the script declares that even our allies will turn on us once they cannot find a use to keep us. If not for the persistent broiling of political turmoil in the run up to the revolution lead by Joseph’s friend Phillippe (Alex Fitzalan), there’s be a sense throughout all of Chevalier that none see him for who he is versus what can be gained from knowing him.
One cannot speak on Chevalier without addressing John Axelrad’s (Ad Astra) editing. The film is about a specific period of time in a musician’s life and there is rhythm to it all maintained or created through the editing. In a beautiful bit of narrative shorthand, we’re shown young Joseph (Rueben Anderson) walking the halls of his new school, drawn to a specific room due to the music playing. As he opens the door the camera pivots and it’s Harrison Jr. as Joseph playing. With a gentle transition, Williams and Axelrad convey how Joseph was being called by his future self, an indomitable talent. Rather than spending time showing Joseph the younger getting this point, Williams opts for this transition to enable us to get more comfortable with Harrison Jr. (whom we’re introduced to first in that opening scene I mentioned), while maintaining an up tempo that briskly moves the audience through all the important moments of his youth leading up to the granting of his title by Queen Marie. Later, while working on his composition for the competition, the editing once more creates a false one-take as location shifts from one thing to the next, creating an unconventional montage that flows from one movement to another akin to the performance of a symphony. There’s also some traditional editing techniques thrown in that serve as poignant periods and exclamations marks on a variety of moments, amplifying the energy of the scene and intent of the characters.
Before closing, allow me to point out that there are some aspects of the film which hinder its total glory from being received. It’s not the performances. Harrison Jr. is magnetic, Weaving offers her most multifaceted performance to date, and Boyton conveys the complexity of royalty and the desperation to keep it. These three as our focal points with support from an equally capable cast enable the audience to give themselves to the drama as it all unfolds. The issue, however, is that so much of the film appears shot on a soundstage with greenscreen rather than on location. When in a concert hall or some other closed space, one can forget the reality of observing actors, but when the set includes windows, far too many in the background appear false, undercutting the seriousness of the drama or lightness of the comedy. There’s also the frequent feeling that things are rushed just a tad too much, so much so that there’s no real sense of when things happen, if not for on-screen notations of “pre-revolution,” “one year later,” and “six months later.” These markers are sometimes the only way to understand where the story is going before it gets there, another act which undercuts the emotional impact of what these time jumps come to represent.
Ultimately, Chevalier is an engaging jumping-off point for modern audiences to learn a version of history that isn’t a version of white European history, while still informing it. The performances, the editing, and narrative offer enough to keep the audience curious and open to where the film eventually ends; perhaps inciting some to go beyond the silver screen and to learn something about the so-called elite art of classical music that so frequently looks down its nose on the equally merit-worthy simply because of the darkening of their skin. The world is a big place housing incredible talent and traditions. With Chevalier, we’re reminded that maybe what we thought we knew about what’s right and wrong in the world is only one opinion shouted by the loudest voices. Perhaps it’s time to listen to someone else for a change.
In theaters April 21st, 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.