We may never know the stories we don’t know. That seems like an obvious statement, a philosophical quandary with a seemingly apparent answer. Except, it’s far more complicated than that because, as is often the case, what we don’t know is often a result of information being kept from us for one reason or another, not for a lack of interest or looking. Time and again through history, ideas, concepts, pieces of art, and even whole people have been hidden from public view out of fear, contempt, or any number of other childish concepts. In the case of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, it was because of his race that Napoleon sought to expunge as much evidence of the famed French musician from history. But because he could not destroy it all, there is an opportunity for some to discover that there once was a composer, musician, athlete whose skills rivaled those of Mozart. Speaking specifically, this opportunity arises in the Stephen Williams-directed (Watchmen/How to Get Away with Murder), Stefani Robinson-written (Atlanta/What We Do in the Shadows), Chevalier, a dramatic adaptation of Bologne’s life pre-French Revolution that blends the past with the present in an attempt to explore the issues of race and class that remain impactful today.
If you’re interested in learning about Chevalier in a spoiler-free capacity, head over to the initial spoiler-free theatrical release review. Moving forward, we will be discussing specific issues that may ruin an otherwise clean viewing.
Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, the son of a slave and a plantation owner, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) was taken at a young age by his father from his home to study. In the 1700s, doing such a thing would require an enormous reason for a mixed race child to be allowed to study with the high ranking white children and, for Joseph, the reason is his gift with a violin. While studying, he grew talented with sword and word, using the former to win, through competition, the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, bestowed upon him by Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), with whom he developed a friendship. Over time, Bologne would rise in the ranks, waiting for the opportunity to take the top prize in his field: the position of head of the Paris Opera House. To win such a role he would need to present a most incredible composition and he has his eyes set on talented singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving). Unfortunately, her husband, Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas), doesn’t permit her to do so, requiring the two work in secret. As they work, not only do tensions flair between them, but so do those of the populace with the monarchy, creating a powder keg of emotion that will lead to revolution.
In the initial review, I took time to carefully layout why Chevalier is worth the watch. It’s not just because the subject matter (even if tweaked for cinematic appeal) is worth knowing, the performances are strong, and the editing is a thing of energetic magic, but because of the ideas that run through it that are still relevant today. Especially as the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community are being torn asunder in the name of “child safety,” it’s only a matter of time before things like mixed-marriage, whether by race or religion or other aspect, are next. Being able to marry anyone you like shouldn’t be something that the government should be involved in, and yet, we seem to be headed back in that direction. Why is this relevant? Much of the appeal of Bologne is as much in his talent as it is his charisma. In the film, the man beds different women. It would be easy to look at him as a womanizer, something which Marie-Josephine even chides him a bit about, only for him (as she laments her rights as a woman) to inform her that he has even fewer rights. He’s unable, by law, to marry someone of his same station and he’s unable to marry someone of his racial community or he will be forced to give up the station/title he’s earned. Bologne is off the world, admired for his talents, and used to herald the greatness of France, but he is never truly a part of it because, in that era, class and race are intrinsically linked in the determination of human worth. Consider this and tell me whether or not that’s occurring now as we’re ok with athletes being athletes, musicians being musicians, celebrities being celebrities, but the moment that an action is perceived as “damaging” they are told the appropriate version of “shut up and dribble.” Of course, Bologne’s situation is far worse than Marie-Josephine’s because, while she’s in a forced and unloving marriage to the point that Marquis De Montalembert kills Marie-Josephine’s newly born child because it has a darkened complexion, a horror that no parent should be forced to endure, can you tell me that there are those in this country (and in many advanced parts of the world) where this would seem like the kind thing to do? The acceptable thing? That’s why Pride Month matters, that’s why Black History Month matters, that’s why learning the stories we don’t know matters, because too many would have you think that the color of your skin is more important than the countenance of your character.
I do wish that the film had balanced the gender rights issue a tad bit more in order to show the complexity of things. Is Marie Antoinette not the friend she seems to be? I’d argue that, as played by Boynton, there’s very little room to argue that she doesn’t value her friendship with him, but that also the class views that keep her in power are more important than those that form her friendships. Conversely, the presentation of conflict between Marie-Josephine and her feelings for Bologne, as presented by Weaving, do articulate the disparity of rights held by women of the era, with full recognition of the helplessness that she possesses in her life, the only agency she’s been afforded of whom she allows into her bed.
As seems to be the case with many Searchlight Pictures home releases, there is but one featurette included with the digital release. Thankfully, the nearly 16-minute “Chevalier: Note By Note” covers everything from Williams, Robinson, and Harrison Jr.’s initial reactions to learning of Bologne, as well as offering some of the central cast members’ thoughts on the film, but also dives into the costuming, the set design, and the music. This featurette does answer a few questions about the look of the film that troubled me, specifically regarding the falseness of the outside sequences that were clearly not on-location. The reason is that the film shot in Prague as a stand-in for Paris, requiring that the insides of locations be overworked in order to achieve a level of authenticity. This is absolutely achieved in the production and set design for the sequences that are inside, but become of a different style when the scene is outside, thereby a sense of falseness creeps in. In concert with some of the cinematography that took on a BBC-esque hue, a quality emerges that’s a bit like a made-for-tv film rather than the destined-for-the-theater experience it is. Though the featurette does confirm this particular suspension, it also makes plain just how much thought went into the on-set crafting of this biographical adaptation, instilling quite a bit of admiration for what is accomplished.
Much in the same way that Chevalier provides an opportunity to learn a story too few know, creating a window by which audiences might explore further, so does the film’s release at home extend such an opportunity. This is a film which isn’t going to be sought after by audiences looking to distract themselves with action and adventure, as they do with other cinematic treats, but this will leave those willing to take a chance on it more than satisfied. They’ll be hungry for more. Thankfully, as expressed in the lone featurette, the music of Bologne is now out there and being restored as new pieces are found. Who knows what stories the unearthing of this one will bring with it.
Chevalier Special Features:
- Chevalier: Note By Note – Discover the untold story of Joseph Bologne, an incredibly talented violinist and composer. In this piece we hear from filmmakers, cast and crew on their journey from discovering this hidden historical figure to bringing his story to life. (15:49)
Available on VOD and digital June 16th, 2023.