Credit: Larry Horricks/20th Century Studios
by Travis DeShong Featured Film Horizon Line

Chevalier — Stephen Williams

April 21, 2023

In July 2020, The New York Times published an article by composer and music composition professor Marcos Balter that criticized the notion of calling Joseph Bologne “Black Mozart.” A versatile genius and all-time classical music great in his own right, Bologne could do better than be reduced in comparison to an “arbitrary white standard.” Director Stephen Williams’ latest outing, Chevalier, opens with a concert scene written to essentially argue that very thing. Bologne, embodied dutifully by Kelvin Harrison Jr., saunters onstage after Mozart concludes a song, asking to join him in a duet. He promptly steals the show, to the crowd’s amazement and Mozart’s consternation. As biopics go, Chevalier isn’t particularly revolutionary stuff, but there’s a sincerity in its desire to function as a character study and a celebration that pushes it past flatly generic territory.

Bologne is the son of a wealthy, white French planter and an enslaved Black woman. His father dumps him in an academy at a young age, demanding his son pursue excellence while abandoning him and the disgrace that he represented. By the time Harrison Jr. steps into Bologne’s shoes, he’s already a burgeoning virtuoso and friend of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), his sophistication a shield and his arrogance notorious. When he sets his sights on the vacant conductor position at the Paris Opera, he taps Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving) to sing in the lead role. Meanwhile, revolution is brewing in France, and Bologne learns that, while his gifts may elevate him, they aren’t enough to earn him equal treatment.

Chevalier is fittingly operatic in style, its Paris setting elaborately curated, the exteriors sun-drenched, interiors candlelit. The soundtrack kicks in on cue, and the penchant for rotational slow pans creates an atmosphere that, while never feeling prestige, has an occasional woozy elegance. And everyone seems to be having fun in their roles, the period characters always immaculately dressed, trading barbs Bridgerton-style. But at the end of the day, Chevalier really is a star vehicle. Bologne is the only character the script cares to fully realize, and Harrison Jr. reliably commands in the role. Whether Bologne is poised, pensive, or pained, Harrison Jr. is diligent in his performance, his motions deliberate, the range in his voice a weapon. It’s a tightrope act that could almost be confused for clunky, with how overt the performative intent can feel, yet it works, both because Harrison Jr. can be charismatic as hell and because his approach rings true to this title character: a talented man embroiled in internal scrutiny in an effort to exist in a world that reviles him. Bologne is a difficult genius, blessed to be singular, cursed to be solitary.

Throughout all of this, the specter of the French Revolution hovers. Characters remark that France is changing — proles are talking about democracy, women are talking about equality, Black Parisians are publicly visible. Chevalier ties Bologne’s struggles and ultimate self-actualization with the Revolution’s radical, liberating promise. It’s certainly not the strongest subtextual incorporation, perhaps because these threads don’t significantly connect until it’s time for his climactic middle finger to the established order that wronged him. Because of this, the ending reeks a bit of Hollywood-ified great man theory veneration, the sort that takes viewers out of the film and reminds them that they’re watching a par-for-the-course, crowd-pleasing biopic. Then the credits roll, and we learn that once Napoleon took power, most of Bologne’s works and records were turned to ash. That’s when Chevalier’s raison d’être becomes clear: crafting a reliably rousing tale about a long-forgotten figure deserving of a myth to enshrine his legend.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.