CHEVALIER (2023) is a handsome production that takes place in France just before the French Revolution and is based on the true story of little-known French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a black man who because of his musical talent was accepted into French high society, but eventually racism derailed any hopes he had of remaining a celebrated composer.
It is not a pleasant story, but it is one that everyone needs to learn about.
CHEVALIER (2023) opens in rousing style with a lively concert scene where we witness young Chevalier (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take the stage alongside Mozart and pretty much show him up in a violin competition for the ages. The sequence ends with a very frustrated Mozart exclaiming, “Who the f*ck was that?” a laugh-out-loud moment and well-placed F-bomb (the only one) in this PG-13 rated bio pic.
We then briefly learn Chevalier’s backstory, where we see his white father deposit him at a prestigious music school in France, which accepts him because even at a young age he is a brilliant violinist. The action returns to Chevalier’s adulthood, where we witness his friendship with the Queen, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). As a champion fencer, violinist, and composer, Chevalier finds himself in the Queen’s favor and their friendship flourishes. Chevalier sets his sights on becoming the next director of the Paris Opera, and he challenges his main competition to a contest: they both will write an opera, and the one whose work is judged the best will become the next director.
For his opera, Chevalier attempts to hire Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) for his lead actress and singer, but her husband, the cruel Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas) refuses to allow his wife to appear on stage. However, Marie-Josephine tells Chevalier that she will do it anyway, that her husband will be out of the country for a year, and so he won’t know. Chevalier is overjoyed, and as the two work closely together, they also become attracted to each other and have an affair.
When news reaches Chevalier that his father has died, he learns that as a bastard son, his father has left him nothing, but also his mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) a slave, has been granted her freedom because of his father’s death, and she comes to live with him. She warns Chevalier not to become too comfortable with his current lifestyle, because as she says these people will never completely accept him. He quickly dismisses his mother’s concerns, but it’s at this time that his entire life unravels.
In spite of winning the competition with the better judged opera, Chevalier is told that he cannot become the next director of the Paris Opera because he is a person with dark skin, and when the Marquis De Montalembert returns, he has it out with Chevalier and warns him never to see his wife again. Things grow even darker just at the French Revolution begins, and life as Chevalier knew it changes forever.
CHEVALIER is beautifully shot by director Stephen Williams, who is mostly known for his TV work, including the TV series WATCHMEN (2019) and WESTWORLD (2016-2018). Here he nicely captures the period of eighteenth century Paris with appropriate sets and costumes. He also provides some nifty camerawork. There’s one neat shot in particular where the camera begins with an exterior shot of the streets below and then retreats through a window inside an upper story apartment.
The screenplay by Stefani Robinson is a good one, as it tells yet another disturbing story about racism, as Chevalier was prevented from becoming the Paris Opera director solely because of the color of his skin. The way he is treated throughout this story is a somber reminder of why stories like Chevalier’s need to continue to be told. We sadly live in a time where it’s become acceptable to push back against stories like these, calling them propaganda or asking they not be taught in schools, actions that only justify their telling all the more. To silence stories about racism is simply more racism.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is solid in the lead role as Chevalier. He displays charm, youthful optimism and confidence, and eventually rage and disillusionment. This is probably my favorite Harrison performance to date. I first saw Harrison in the well-made horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) where he played Joel Edgerton’s son. Harrison also played the lead role in LUCE (2019) and was part of the ensemble cast in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020). Here in CHEVALIER Harrison delivers his most captivating performance, and he trained long and hard on the violin as well, and so the scenes where he plays the violin look realistic.
I’m a fan of Samara Weaving. I love her over-the-top performances in THE BABYSITTER horror movies. She also wowed in the action horror movie READY OR NOT (2019). She had a small role in BABYLON (2022) and is also currently appearing in SCREAM VI (2023). Here in CHEVALIER, she is so very good as Marie-Josephine. Weaving plays a strong female character who refuses to be ruled by her dominating husband, and so she doesn’t hold back in her relationship with Chevalier. Their doomed relationship is one of the more tragic elements of this ultimately very sad story.
Speaking of her husband, Marton Csokas gives a subtle yet disturbing performance as Marquis De Montalembert. One of his best scenes has him quietly telling Chevalier that he is so lucky to be living in France, as in any other country in the world he’d be beaten down because of the color of his skin, the implication being that Chevalier is inferior and that he’s only allowed to do the things he’s doing because of the good graces of the French government. You just want to smack De Montalembert across the face.
Lucy Boynton makes for a spirited Marie Antoinette, going from Chevalier’s biggest fan early on to his biggest detractor when he bristles as her lack of support for his Paris Opera director bid. We just saw Boynton in the superior Netflix thriller THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022), which starred Christian Bale and Harry Melling.
Ronke Adekoluejo is very good as Chevalier’s mother, and when his life spirals out of control, she is there for him and serves to keep him inspired to push on with his life.
I also enjoyed Sian Clifford quite a bit as Madame De Genlis, who was friends with both Chevalier and Marie-Josephine and who helped Chevalier with his opera bid. Likewise, Minnie Driver excels as La Guimard, the opera singer whose advances Chevalier rejected, and so she worked hard to derail his attempts at becoming the next opera director, as she starred in the rival opera.
Overall, I enjoyed CHEVALIER quite a bit. Its story is a good one, in spite of it being depressing. It also ends on a down note, as before the end credits roll, we read that most of Chevalier’s music was destroyed years later by Napoleon Bonaparte, and so most of his work has been lost.
The film is not perfect. It’s all rather conventional and safe in its storytelling and lacks the necessary edge which this story needs. There were also more things I wanted to learn about the man, which aren’t covered in this movie—-how did he become such an accomplished violinist? What happened to him during the French Revolution? —, and there was more I wanted to know about some of the other characters as well.
But it makes its points, that racism ruined Chevalier’s life and career, that he was denied the position of Paris Opera director based solely on the color of his skin, and that the world has been largely denied his musical brilliance for no other reason except that his skin was dark.
CHEVALIER also features a confident performance by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in the lead role, a performance that is well worth the price of admission.
I give CHEVALIER three stars.
Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line
Three and a half stars- Excellent
Three stars – Very Good
Two and a half stars – Good
Two Stars – Fair
One and a half stars – Pretty Weak
One star- Poor
Zero stars – Awful