Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Chevalier: Movie Review

A tale of opera, racism, forbidden love and the French revolution.
A film about a man almost forgotten by history is about to be completely ignored by the movie-going public. On one hand, an operatic biopic about a violinist from the 18th century is never going to be an easy sell; but on the other hand, this should have easily been able to ride the popularity of Bridgerton, the popularity of stars Kelvin Harrison Jr and Samara Weaving and the intrigue in the French monarchy and Queen Marie Antoinette.   2022

Directed by: Stephen Williams

Screenplay by: Stefani Robinson

Starring: Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Samara Weaving

Chevalier has a bit of everything: A peruke, those white wigs of the period typically worn by the aristocratic wealthy, worn by a young Black man; period costumes as worn by the upper class and the monarchy; a romance with a starlet Marie-Josephine as played by Samara Weaving; a friendship with Queen Marie Antoinette; a rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; classical compositions; the entry into the French Revolution; and last but not least the racial politics of the time, and how a young Black man found his way into the upper echelons of French society and then led a country into a revolution.

Let’s start with how a Black man, Joseph Bologne, born in 1745 in Guadeloupe became a confidante of Marie Antoinette and revered by members of the very wealthy French elite. His father was a very wealthy French plantation owner on the island of Guadeloupe, his mother was a slave; while his father would not (or could not) officially recognize him as his son, he did realize his musical talents and was able to get him into the most elite and privileged school in France for the development of classical musicians. He left him there to fend for himself but paid for whatever young Joseph needed. As is often the case, money can help overcome at least some aspects of racism.

After a brief introduction, the film really starts when Joseph crashes a Mozart concert and challenges him to a violin duel. Many members of that audience would have been outraged at the vulgar audacity of a Black man, but not Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). Joseph quickly found himself in the inner circle of the Queen, at least when it came to music and operas, and he coined himself Chevalier de Saint Georges (his father’s name). Friends in the highest places, along with money, can help overcome even more aspects of racism.

The plot of the first half involves Chevalier trying to stage an opera to be named the Paris opera conductor, while falling in love with his leading lady Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) who is of course married to a wealthy military man who despises and distrusts Chevalier. While you can have a few guesses to how that relationship could evolve, this story is an epic, and there are twists and turns within that very compelling relationship highlighted by the two impressive young actors Harrison, Jr. and Weaving.

The plot of the second half features the ascent of the French Revolution. This is a smart, interesting, historically accurate movie with multiple moving pieces within the story and elements that simmer on the backburner before becoming more prominent later on.

The score is a central piece with much of it based on the works of Joseph Bologne himself. One would probably want to ask how a man of this talent and prominence is largely unknown, but I’m afraid the answer is pretty simple: racism. We should be a more evolved society now and this movie deserves to live on.

One of the Best of 2023