Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was a brilliant composer, artist, and military man who has been largely lost in time. Considered the first Black classical composer, he enjoyed great fame and notoriety in the court of Marie Antoinette before serving as the colonel of the first all-Black regiment in Europe during the French Revolution. Chevalier is inspired by the true story of this magnificent figure, and although it is a heavily fictionalized account of his life, it does important work in bringing attention to a Black artist whose legacy has largely been erased.
From the first moments of the film, Stephen Williams’s skillful direction and Jess Hall’s beautiful cinematography are on display as Chevalier (a dashing Kelvin Harrison Jr.) interrupts Mozart’s concert to challenge him to a duel of violins. Mozart arrogantly assumes that a “dark man” could not possibly play better than him, before Chevalier firmly proves that he is better at playing Mozart’s music than the composer is. It’s a clever opening to a film about a figure who has often been given the nickname of “the Black Mozart” and brings to mind another duel in a theater in Harrison’s last film, Cyrano.
The film then flashes back to show Joseph arriving in France as a child, taken from his enslaved mother in Guadeloupe by his French aristocratic father. He is brought to an academy for gifted students, impressing the headmaster with his violin skills despite the man’s hesitancy to enroll a Black student. Before leaving, his father instructs him that he must always be excellent to prove wrong those who would doubt him. While never explicitly referred to again, this scene seemingly provides the motivation that drives the character throughout the rest of the film.
As he grows, Joseph becomes more proficient not only in violin playing but also in composing and fencing. It’s through the latter that he gains the attention of Queen Marie-Antoinette (Lucy Boynton, in perhaps her best role to date) at a fencing competition that he wins, leading her to bestow upon him the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. A year later, he enjoys fame and fortune as an intimate friend of the queen, but his ambition urges him towards the highest role in the musical world: the leader of the Paris Opera.
As he works on the opera that he hopes will win him the position of his dreams, Chevalier becomes entangled with a young noblewoman with a beautiful voice. Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) is married to a cold military man (a sternly evil Marton Csokas) who doesn’t support her love of the arts. Much of the film is taken up by the steamy romance, as both Chevalier and Marie-Josephine seek the love and companionship they’re lacking in each other. Harrison and Weaving have excellent chemistry, and Weaving gives a wonderful performance as a young woman attempting to find her way out of a life that she feels trapped in.
While the love story is compelling, the political and cultural depiction of France in this time period is even more interesting. Stefani Robinson’s screenplay does an excellent job of showing how despite his wealth and high position, Chevalier is still plagued by discrimination because of his African heritage. She delves into the white supremacist views that were in their still-early days at the time, with some complaining that France was “under siege” by Africans.
Chevalier spends much of his early life denying the African half of his heritage to better fit in with those around him. However, when he is reunited with his mother Nanon (a dignified Rnoke Adekoluejo), he eventually becomes involved in the African community of Paris. So rarely do we get to see a community like this represented on film, despite the fact that they existed in Europe at the time. Even films like Belle stay very focused on the one African-European character rather than demonstrating the larger point that much of European history has been white-washed in its telling.
Chevalier’s best friend Philippe (an affable Alex Fitzalan) becomes involved in radical politics, which brilliantly highlights the coming revolution. In contrast to Chevalier’s more nuanced view of the world due to the discrimination he has faced, Philippe has all the naiveté of a rich young man who has never experienced negative consequences and treats the upcoming rebellion (against his own family members) with an astoundingly cheerful determination.
Robinson’s script excellently parallels Chevalier’s personal transformation from trying to fit in with the aristocrats to becoming involved with the African community with the leadup to the revolution itself. Boynton is excellent throughout as Marie Antoinette, but the scenes later in the film in which we see a desperate woman clinging to self-preservation in any way she can are very effective, especially because the audience knows her coming fate. Boynton imbues the character with enough humanity in her small amount of screen time that it’s possible to have empathy for the doomed monarch even as she is in opposition to her once beloved Chevalier.
Chevalier boasts sumptuous production design by Karen Murphy and costume design by Oliver Garcia, along with a beautiful score by Kris Bowers. It’s a lesson in opulent filmmaking, luxuriating in the aristocratic world that it depicts while also challenging the audience’s perception of that world by demonstrating the presence of an African figure within it. Chevalier is not only an important film because of the way that it sheds light on a Black artist whose legacy was robbed from them, but it’s also a top-notch period romance with a fantastic ensemble cast.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release the film in theaters but the date is TBA.