It takes a certain kind of swagger to interrupt and upstage the likes of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart during a concert, and Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has it in spades. As one observes in the opening moments of Stephen Williams’ sensational film Chevalier, Bologne is a man who is assured in his own greatness and eager to prove it. Despite having the musical abilities to back up his ego, being a Black man in 18th-century Paris meant that one’s talents always came second to the colour of one’s skin.
Inspired by the real-life man, Chevalier is a fictionalized telling of the life of the famed composer and a pointed examination of why his legacy was sadly scrubbed from history. Williams does not waste too much time on Bologne’s early years, he uses a few choice scenes and a montage to get viewers up to speed on all the key points. Born in Guadeloupe as the illegitimate son of an enslaved African, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), and a white French aristocrat (Jim High), he was whisked away to a fancy Parisian school when he displayed a gift for playing the violin.
While he had access to an education that many could only dream off, being Black made him a target for racism and violence. Seeing as even those in the government were spewing anti-Black rhetoric to ward off a diversifying France, Bologne had to strive to be the best at everything he did as a matter of survival. His hard work led him to be a part of Marie Antoinette’s (Lucy Boynton) inner circle when she bestowed on him the prestigious title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Although the position brought him plenty of fame, leading individuals like aging Opera singer La Guimard (Minnie Driver) to covet a collaboration with him both on stage and in bed, he had bigger ambitions.
Longing to be the director of the Paris Opera, he convinced Antoinette to hold a competition for the job. Each contestant will create an opera and have it performed for a panel of judges with the winner earning the position. Believing his opera Ernestine will revolutionize the art form, the only thing left was to find his star. Mesmerized by the voice and beauty of Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), Bologne woos the singer to perform on stage, despite the objections of her violent husband Montalembert (Marton Csokas), and begins a torrid affair that could threaten to put the production and their lives in jeopardy.
While the forbidden romance hits many of the operatic beats one would expect, Williams uses the love story to subtly lead audiences into more pressing conversations about race and identity. Chevalier is one of those rare works that effectively captures the challenges Black people endure when operating in all-white spaces. Working hard to assimilate and prove his worth most of his life, Bologne temporarily loses sight of his true self in the process. At one point, after being reunited with his mother, he is playful mocked by Nanon’s friends because he acts white.
As Stefani Robinson’s wonderful screenplay captures, despite looking and acting the part, Bologne’s acceptance into high society is a transactional one. His worth is based on the work he produces and the ability to ensure those around him always feel comfortable. The mere hint of discomfort with his presence can blow down the shaky house of cards his life is standing on. Even the genuine connections he makes with Marie-Josephine cannot supersede the societal structures and laws of the time that view him as “the other”.
What makes the rise and fall of Bologne so tragic is the fact that he believes that he will be the exception. He is far more educated and well-versed than most of the folks allowed in Antoinette’s inner circle and is living better than the impoverished in France who are on the brink of revolution. In observing Bologne’s slow realization of the worlds he finds himself in, William’s film incorporates blistering social commentary every step of the way. An example of this can be found when Chevalier critiques white culture’s need to place themselves at the centre of everything, including making life-altering decisions for others that do not impact them personally.
The pointed commentary on race, gender and politics in the film is given an added richness thanks in part to the wonderful performances in the film. Spending six months learning how to play the violin at an elite level, Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives a career defining turn as Bologne. Conveying a mixture of magnetic charisma that exudes confidence and a vulnerability that humanizes the character, Harrison Jr. is mesmerizing to watch. Backed by the strong work of the ensemble supporting cast, Weaving continues to wow in everything she touches, the film elevates itself above the usual trappings of these types of period pieces.
A lush period drama led by a brilliant performance by Harrison Jr., Chevalier is a crowd-pleasing gem. It is a wonderful reclamation of a history that will no longer be erased.
Chevalier screened as part of TIFF 2022, which ran from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.