Review by Tatiana Miranda
Although most of his work was destroyed by Napolean Bonaparte only a couple of years after his death, Joseph Bologne's impact lives on through the new film Chevalier. Named after his role as Chevalier in Versailles, the film focuses more on Bologne's accomplishments as a violinist.
The son of a wealthy plantation owner and an enslaved woman, Bologne was a Creole, free man of color who was taken to France at the age of seven, where he studied fencing and music composition. Because not much is known about Bologne, Chevalier does take plenty of creative liberties, yet the film does excel in portraying Bologne's unique perspective as a Black man living in Marie Antoinette's court during the early days of the French Revolution.
The film opens with a concert performance by Mozart that is hijacked by Bologne after he asks to play alongside him. In a rap battle-style duel, the two musicians battle using their violins, with Bologne coming out on top. While this scene is wildly entertaining and a clever way to modernize the audience's perception of violinists, it's heavily fictionalized.
Partially a result of the lack of remaining artifacts from Bologne's life and a mode of storytelling, Chevalier centers around the "height" of Bologne's career as a member of Marie Antoinette's court and a celebrated composer and chevelier. Then, after the death of his father and reunion with his mother, Bologne is confronted with his Blackness and the resulting limits of his career and love life.
While Chevalier is unique in the fact that it is the first movie, better yet, the first piece of media to depict Bologne's life, it's not particularly distinctive when it comes to biopics. There are moments in the film, such as the opening performance with Mozart, that inject a sense of modernity in an otherwise period setting in a clever and practical way.
These moments are akin to movies like Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola. Yet, director Stephen Williams doesn't commit to this, instead clumsily juxtaposing these exciting scenes full of personality with ones that could have been pulled from any period drama.
Chevalier is also lacking in terms of what parts of Bologne's story it decides to tell. Through his friend Louis Philippe II, the audience sees snippets of the French Revolution from the eyes of the nobility.
For the most part, Bologne seems uninterested in the revolution as he is accustomed to his lifestyle and is close to Marie Antoinette. Yet, his rejection as the next conductor of the Paris Opera due to his skin color seemingly causes him to rethink his alliance.
This, compared to Bologne's real-life experience as a colonel fighting in the revolution, come across as petty and understated. Oftentimes throughout the film, the discussion of Bologne's race feels like an afterthought. While this might be supposed to be a representation of Bologne's attitude toward it, it is more unusual as he is supposedly the first Black European composer to receive widespread critical acclaim.
Although Chevalier is certainly a story about Joseph Bologne, it is not the definitive portrayal of his life and will likely cause viewers to want to learn more about him. While much is left unfulfilled in terms of historical accuracy and conclusive storytelling, Chevalier gives a voice to a previously unrepresented figure in history, which is a feat in itself.
Chevalier is now playing in theaters.