Kelvin Harrison Jr. commands a compelling and timely tale of music and revolution
Even as a child, the life of Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is defined by the 18th century’s expectations of race and class. The illegitimate mixed son of a white plantation owner, Joseph is sent to a boarding school in distant France—not just to cover up his father’s indiscretions, but to fulfill the promise of Joseph’s prodigal skills. His father demands that he excel at all costs, defying societal expectations for his Black heritage in order to become a “good Frenchman.” Having already mastered the violin as a boy, Joseph becomes equally skilled at fencing–besting France’s finest fencers as well as Mozart himself in competitions of swords and strings, eventually earning a coveted place among the court of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. However, Bologne’s ambition is dead set on a prize that the White aristocracy is equally determined to prevent him from obtaining: the Head of the Paris Opera. Joseph combats relentless his Sisyphean oppression with charm and wit… while a rival fiery spirit of revolution grows among France’s lower class.
The best historical biopics don’t just illuminate untold portions of our past; they break down barriers to our present to illustrate their prescient vitality. With an electric and witty script by Stefani Robinson, complemented by Stephen Williams’ exquisite direction and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s commanding performance, Chevalier is a riveting and timely biopic that wields its messages like a finely-piercing weapon.
From its incredible opening duel with Mozart, Williams and Robinson economically set up an emotional tension that challenges notions of who is allowed to create art, who can dictate its success, and how anyone can benefit from it. Both Mozart and Bologne play their instruments with treasured intimacy; even Mozart recognizes the formidable skill of his unexpected opponent before being dwarfed by humiliation. But where Mozart has quickly risen through the ranks of the music world, Bologne’s appearance is the culmination of decades of challenging work. He’s trained to be a multi-hyphenate since he was a child, not just to nurture his own natural talents, but so that he can even reach the bare minimum of the arbitrary societal standards designed to work against him.
Harrison Jr. plays Bologne with intimate passion and frustration, wielding a violin bow and blade as his tools to move through French society, and adopting powdered wigs and fine fashions as his costumes to mask or blend in among those who still turn their noses up at him or eye him with awkward curiosity. Powered by an equally incisive wit, Harrison makes Bologne’s skillful maneuvering and manipulation of the upper class in service of his art extremely compelling to watch. At the same time, every stumbling block for Joseph feels monumental precisely because of how little the same obstacles impact his White companions and colleagues. Every success feels both earned and bestowed, and every failure seems to come at a devastating whim. Over time, Bologne’s bow and blade transform from the right tools to the perfect weapons to burn this society to the ground.
The film’s supporting cast provides their own illustrative angles to these themes–addressing everything from earnest societal change to opportunistic progressivism. Alex Fitzalan as Joseph’s revolution-minded best friend Philippe sees how France’s society is an oligarchy masquerading as a meritocracy, pushing Joseph further towards using his art for a cause; Samara Weaving’s Marie-Josephine is a woman whose own passions for art are forcibly held back by her militaristic, art-hating husband (Marton Csokas, always deliciously evil). Boynton’s Marie Antoinette, however, is show-stealing as the lofty-minded yet obsequious ruler; she parades her friendship with Joseph as a symbol of her seemingly progressive ideals, yet stands by as her fellow ruling class prevents his success from pushing any actual boundaries. While the Queen’s duplicitous friendship initially bruises Joseph’s ego–compounded by his own romantic hurdles with Marie-Josephine and Philippe’s drive to organize–all provide a much-needed wake-up call for him to examine just how this Chevalier can use his current power to change the world he lives in.
The techs of Chevalier bring 18th-Century France to life with a brimming, painterly vitality. The efficiency of Robinson’s screenplay is realized by incredible editing by John Axelrad and cinematography by Jess Hall, weaponizing each cut and transition to evoke the power and theatricality of the live performances as well as drive home the film’s fiery activist spirit. Especially worth noting is a breathtaking montage dovetailing the creation of Joseph’s latest Opera with the increasing chemistry between him and leading lady Marie-Josephine, infusing both with a forbidden and fiery passion. Clever costuming not only looks gorgeous on film (the towering wigs are wonders to behold) but evokes the colors and inspirational motto of France’s “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
At the core of Chevalier’s magnetic appeal is how the film’s screenplay, techs, and performances commit to the timeliness of the film’s themes. Joseph’s ego and excellence quickly win over the audience as he skillfully breaks down the backward barriers of the world he lives in; however, his victories also serve as effective and sobering reminders of how the same inequalities remain all too current today. Throughout Chevalier, 18th-Century France echoes today’s own disturbing headlines, from White fears of a “great replacement” to fair-weather, self-serving actions of tokenism masquerading as earnest attempts at progressivism in art and society. The fact that much of today’s audiences may learn of Bologne’s life and work from this film speaks to the efficacy of Napoleonic attempts at erasing the artist’s work from history–making Chevalier both an effective tool at resurrecting this buried musician as well as a clarion call to stamp out the racist and classist forces that encouraged his erasure.
Chevalier is now playing in theaters courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.