Chevalier ★★★

The history of Western classical music is dominated by White men as any person forced to play a Western instrument at a young age can attest to. Classical music is many people’s first conception of what a canon (a Western one) is and it is often seen as homogenous and monolithic. Chevalier, directed by Lost producer and director Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, challenges that conception with its focus on Joseph Bologne, a French-Caribbean composer, who was named Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and would not only compose his own music and be associated with composers such as Mozart, Haydn and Gluck but would also later become a leader in the French Revolution.


Chevalier is clearly meant to be an inspirational tale, and it hits expected beats diligently. An opening scene has Joseph (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) squaring off against a cocky Mozart (Joseph Prowen) in a violin duel at Mozart’s own concert. We also see him excel at school and fencing. He is even seen as an object of desire by the women of the court, not just for his looks, but for the special favor he holds with royalty, especially Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). Harrison’s Joseph knows that while men might have the power, it was important to get into the good graces of the women of the court. Stephen Williams handles the story beats deftly with big set pieces such as ballroom scenes and riots in the street while balancing them with many scenes of intimate conversation. For about the first third of the movie, though, Chevalier seems dangerously close to becoming predictable in how faithfully it hits storytelling tropes.

It is in the portrayals of the female characters, however, that Chevalier manages to distinguish itself. Central to the story is Joseph’s relationship to Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving), a noblewoman who is married to a notoriously sadistic officer in the French army (Marton Csokas). Their romance is obviously doomed to fail from the very beginning for many reasons, not the least of which is racism. Yet Stefani Robinson’s script gives Marie the words to express how she knows her position in this society and how she must look out for herself, despite being in a loveless marriage to a cruel man. It is a remarkably clear-eyed, unsentimental view of her situation. 

The other female characters such as Minnie Driver’s Marie Madeleine Guimard, an opportunistic opera singer, and Marie Antoinette herself, have similar interactions. Because Joseph is an “other” like themselves, someone only barely in the center of power and privilege, because of his race and social status that they feel they can be much more honest with him than with any White person. Perhaps the scenes that really distinguishes Chevalier are the ones with Joseph’s mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), a woman born into slavery. By the very nature of the social circles Joseph finds himself in, he is always the only person of color. Having his mother in his home gives him the opportunity to talk about how he is affected by his “otherness” and the anxiety that he has about his status in the court. She is the only character who listens to him without judgment and with true empathy. She is also an important connection to the roots that he had to forsake in order to fit into the world of the French court.

With such a rich script that gives so much to all its characters, especially the side characters, it is no wonder that all the performances are excellent. All the major women characters come off as intelligent and self-aware, especially Boynton’s Marie Antoinette, who has to play the complex role of at first Joseph’s ally but later his adversary as he starts to have more revolutionary leanings. 
In a period piece where it would have been easy to focus solely on an admittedly remarkable figure such as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier’s awareness of the plight of women provides a dimension of this historical period that is not often considered in discussions about it in a thoughtful and well-considered manner. Much of the credit has to go to Stefani Robinson, who made her name on quirky shows with complex, character-driven stories such as Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows. Chevalier is a fine, inspirational story of an underdog, but the presence of rich characters around its subject makes this conventional film a bit more special.

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