Directed by: Stephen Williams
Premise: Based on true events. In eighteenth century France, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a musical prodigy angling to become the next director of the Paris Opera. He has an affair with opera singer Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving).
What Works: Chevalier is primarily a forbidden love story with Black musician Joseph Bologne romancing the white and married opera singer Marie-Josephine de Montalembert. The romance between them works. Actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Samara Weaving have a likable romantic chemistry and their desire for each other is palpable. Multiple obstacles keep them apart and the tension between their mutual attraction and the insurmountable forces separating them makes for a satisfying romantic story. Chevalier has an interesting tone. Period pieces have a reputation for being stuffy but this film is loose and fun. Much of that has to do with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s performance. He’s charming and irreverent and Bologne is so full of himself that he could easily become unlikable but Harrison keeps him interesting. The movie includes a fair amount of humor but also a sense of impending violence as the revolutionary sentiment on the Paris streets becomes more volatile. Chevalier also works as a story of a Black character forced to be exceptional. Bologne is gifted as a musician and a swordsman but he’s compelled to be excellent because of racial prejudice and the film dramatizes the way he is treated more as a novelty than as a person.
What Doesn’t: Chevalier is an example of presentism; it reframes history through a contemporary lens. This use of history is not unusual in cinema. Period pieces almost always use the past to comment upon the present but in this case the filmmakers distort history. The French Revolution was primarily a matter of social class with the lower caste of French society driven to violence out of starvation and desperation. Racism was of course a facet of eighteenth-century French society but Chevalier reimagines a revolution founded in social class into one about race. The dramatization of racism lacks novelty or inspiration. Bologne is a Black character in a white society and his encounter with social boundaries is an important turning point in the story. He also rediscovers his ethnic roots after being reunited with his mother. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t explore Bologne’s realizations. Encountering his family’s culture doesn’t change his music or sense of self. Chevalier’s depiction of racism is dramatically effective but the commentary is thin and the scenarios are familiar from other racially-themed movies.
Bottom Line: Chevalier is an enjoyable period piece. The filmmakers manipulate history to serve the present moment and the racial drama tends toward the familiar but the love story has sufficient heartache and the picture is fast moving and entertaining.
Episode: #946 (April 30, 2023)