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9th June 2023

Chevalier (2022): A Noble pursuit that falls short of greatness

Chevalier, released in the UK in June 2023, strives to ascend to the heights of the greatest period dramas but falls short of that lofty ambition
Chevalier (2022): A Noble pursuit that falls short of greatness
Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph Bologne in Chavalier (2022)

Chavelier, directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, centres on the extraordinary life of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an illegitimate son of an African slave and French plantation owner who rose to acclaim in French society as a revered composer. Despite its engaging narrative and outstanding performances from most of the cast, the film disappoints due to its historical inaccuracies and an uneven lead performance.

Indeed, the historical inaccuracies are disconcerting. A scene featuring a violin competition between Bologne and Mozart, which our protagonist wins, feels more fiction than fact. Equally baffling is the portrayal of Bologne’s music as a driving force in the French Revolution, a narrative thread that pushes the envelope of believability. Also, the narrative decision to include a tragic incident involving the death of Bologne’s newborn son appears as a mere plot device, given the absence of supporting historical evidence. This creative license may resonate emotionally with the audience, but it risks distorting the truth of Bologne’s life. Sadly, most lay-viewers unfamiliar with music history evidently take such events for truth.

However, Chevalier shines in its heartfelt exploration of the challenges faced by free black men during the era. This posthumous tribute to Bologne and his legacy is beautifully rendered and an important spotlight on a figure whose musical works were lost to time due to Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery in French colonies. Unfortunately, a significant omission was Bologne’s leadership of the first all-black regiment, an accomplishment that should have deserved its due screen time.

The cast is a mix of highs and lows. Lucy Boynton shines in her role as Marie Antoinette, bringing the infamous French queen to life with a stunning performance and challenging Kristen Dunst and Emilia Schüle as the role’s best performer. Samara Weaving as Bologne’s lover, Marie-Joséphine de Comarieu de Montalembert, is equally remarkable, breathing life and depth into her character. Ronke Adekoluejo‘s portrayal of Bologne’s mother leaves a lasting impression. However, Kelvin Harrison Jr., despite his best efforts, delivers a less than convincing portrayal of the eponymous Chevalier. His performance feels overly rehearsed, preventing the audience from fully immersing themselves in the narrative.

Chevalier‘s visual and musical elements play a significant role in shaping its overall impact. The cinematography skilfully captures the grandeur of the period, immersing the audience in the opulence of 18th-century Versailles. The exquisite costumes and meticulously designed sets transport viewers to a bygone era, enhancing the authenticity of the film’s setting. While the score may not be entirely accurate historically, it successfully captures the essence of Joseph Bologne’s music and life, skilfully blending Classical and Afro-European influences (as well as, weirdly, late-19th-century African-American tonalities either to appeal to modern viewers or to portray the composer as a pioneer). This fusion of captivating visuals and a compelling musical backdrop creates an immersive experience for the audience, despite the film taking creative liberties with historical accuracy.

However, it is worth noting that the CGI employed in the film falls short of the industry standards expected in 2023. The computer-generated effects used in certain scenes lack the seamless integration and realism that contemporary audiences have come to expect. This disparity between the CGI quality and the rest of the film’s production values can be a jarring distraction, momentarily pulling viewers out of the immersive world that the cinematography and set designs work so diligently to create.

Despite this shortcoming, Chevalier still manages to offer a visually and aurally captivating experience, showcasing the beauty and grandeur of the period it portrays. The meticulous attention to detail in the costumes and sets, combined with the evocative musical score, create a rich tapestry that transports viewers to the world of Joseph Bologne. While the CGI may not meet the expectations of our time, it should not overshadow the film’s overall achievement in creating a visually stunning and musically immersive experience.

A late-18th-century portrait of Joseph Bologne, painted by Mather Brown (National Gallery)

One of the film’s strengths lies in its exploration of the complex relationships that shaped Bologne’s life. The portrayal of Bologne’s romantic involvement with Marie-Joséphine is tender and nuanced, showcasing the struggles and sacrifices they faced as an interracial couple in a deeply prejudiced society. The chemistry between Samara Weaving and Kelvin Harrison Jr., despite the latter’s uneven performance, manages to convey the emotional depth of their connection.

Moreover, Chevalier succeeds in shedding light on the broader societal issues of the time. It highlights the hypocrisy and contradictions within French high society, where Bologne’s exceptional talent and accomplishments were celebrated, yet he still faced discrimination due to his ethnicity. The film serves as a reminder of the systemic racism that pervaded European societies during that era and the resilience required for individuals like Bologne to overcome such obstacles.

While this film falls short of its ambition to become a definitive period drama, it nevertheless offers a compelling narrative that introduces audiences to the remarkable life of Joseph Bologne. The film’s flaws, including historical inaccuracies and an uneven lead performance, should be acknowledged, but they should not overshadow its merits. Chevalier‘s heartfelt exploration of racial challenges, its visual and musical allure, and its portrayal of complex relationships all contribute to a worthwhile cinematic experience. It serves as a stepping stone for further exploration and appreciation of Bologne’s contributions to music and his enduring legacy as an influential figure in history. All in all, this movie offers an engaging, albeit embellished account of Bologne’s life.

While not quite hitting the high notes of Amadeus (1984), Chevalier is a commendable effort worth watching.

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