Chevalier is a biopic about violin virtuoso Joseph Bolonge Chevalier de Saint George directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson.
“Play violin concerto #5!” Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) shouts as he steps on stage, confident in his abilities, ready to compete against the revered Mozart. Bologne shreds that violin to a standing ovation from the French elite. His origin begins when he is bought from the French colony of Guadeloupe and dumped at a high-class boarding school for boys by his White, slave-owning father. The school is supposed to nurture his talent as a violinist and sword fighter. He’s treated like crap during his time at the school but given a chance to prove himself in front of King Louis and Marie Antionette (Lucy Boynton), who bestows him the title of Chevalier de Saint George, which thrust him to the height of high society.
Bologne’s music is the talk of the town, but he isn’t allowed to perform in Paris’ most prestigious venues because the color of his skin is a barrier to access. At a party hosted by the Queen, she issues a challenge between him and another composer to write an opera. The winner will perform at the Paris opera and be crowned the company’s director. He needs sponsors and a singer. After some smooth talking, the musician gets what he needs to win the top spot. But a chance love affair with the star of his Opera, Marie Josephine (Samara Weaving), may destroy everything he’s built.
As a Black man in rich white, French circles, there is only so much he can say and do, so he plays the violin to gain catharsis. Joseph has a false sense of reality and often conflates perfection with popularity. He thinks he’s loved for his talents when people only value what he can do for them. The first sexual encounter with Marie Josephine isn’t seen as a loving moment. Kris Bower’s brilliant score hints that this action has sealed his fate. His presumptuousness hinders his ability to see clearly. His best friend Phillipe (Alex Fitzalan) tries to give him an out by traveling with him to London to meet other abolitionists, but Joseph declines. Oh well, he learns the hard way not to be so trusting.
The production design by Karen Murphy and costumes by Oliver Garcia are mind-blowingly resplendent. No detail is left spared to transport the audience back to the height of song, music, and revolution. The way Williams’ camera maneuvers around Joseph while playing the violin is exquisite. Even the hair and makeup are tight. There are no loose strands, nothing is out of place, and production took the effort to find someone to do Kelvin Harrison Jr hair, which is often lacking on film sets with Black leads. Robinson’s script is sometimes on the nose, but she doesn’t make him a sympathetic character, which is refreshing.
The acting is in top form, but the standouts are Harrison and Boynton. Harrison is a revelation and gets better with every performance. He chooses his projects with such care and consideration–he’s navigating Hollywood on his terms. Boyton shapes her version of Marie Antionette as the perfect Karen, very much self-absorbed and anti-allyship. It’s her best work to date.
Chevalier is a lesson in humility that sometimes we get in our own way. Joseph did whatever he wanted to do and paid the price. He gets dropped by every white person the man covets, which crushes his ego. The virtuoso was told to strive for perfection (Whiteness), and the door is slammed in his face when he does. That is white supremacy in a nutshell. However, out of the struggle, he gains autonomy and dignity and uses his music not to entertain white people but as a form of rebellion.