Set in Paris in the days before the French Revolution, Chevalier is an opulent footnote to black history about Joseph Bologne, born in Guadeloupe as the illegitimate son of an aristocratic French plantation owner and an African slave who shocked and tantalized society with his astounding genius as a composer, violinist, and swordsman, attracting the attention and admiration of Marie Antoinette and her court with uncommon grace, talent and sex appeal. Typical of his audacity is an early scene in which he interrupts a Paris concert conducted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the middle of the maestro’s Fifth Symphony and asks to play it with him. From there, the film, directed by Stephen Williams and written in lavish detail by Stefani Robinson, chronicles the triumphs and tragedies faced by the brilliant musician (Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a dazzling centerpiece performance) who rose to the pinnacle of popularity while battling racial prejudice his entire life.
CHEVALIER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Climbing against all odds from outcast to a position of honor and privilege in the Queen’s inner circle, Bologne was anointed with the title Chevalier de St George. Desired by a vindictive older woman, La Guimard (Minnie Driver), he fell instead for a beautiful but forbidden singer, Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), who was very much married to the cruel Marquis Montalembert, a cruel, sadistic and titled reprobate renowned as a murderous bully and tyrant (played by the marvelous Marton Csokas). When Marie-Josephine defies her husband, accepts the lead in Bologne’s new opera without his knowledge or permission, and in the process, to the marquis’ horror and humiliation, secretly becomes the mistress of a black man, Bologne finds his libido invigorated but his life endangered. Jealous and resentful forces conspire to plot his downfall, destroying any hope of achieving his greatest ambition: becoming the next leader of the prestigious Paris Opera.
The movie piles on one damned thing after another, often turning a truly original life story into a Rabelaisian soap opera replete with powdered wigs and violin concertos. In truth, Napoleon Bonaparte later banned Bologne’s popular compositions, many of which have never been found or heard to this day. Some of that legacy rises from the ashes of obscurity in Chevalier, and even with its flaws, it’s worth hearing again.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.