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‘Chevalier’ Review: Trailblazing Virtuoso Takes Center Stage in an Underwhelming Biopic

By Melanie Fischer | Film | April 27, 2023 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | April 27, 2023 |


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The most (in)famous sort of biopic—the one where an A-list actor transforms into an equally recognizable icon and re-enacts a slightly puffed-up version of their Wikipedia biography so that they (and their makeup artists) can secure an Oscar—is somewhere between a horseshoe crab and a cockroach. Unkillable, unchanging, a relic of a bygone era that will probably outlast us all.

But there are other kinds of biopics. The more daring, experimental kind, like Pablo Larraín’s “anti-biopics” (Neruda, Jackie, Spencer)—stories that use iconic lives as the foundation to explore intriguing themes and ideas as opposed to biographical factoids. And then there’s a third kind: traditional in form, like the classic biopic, but more original in subject, shining a spotlight on a figure not typically featured in the standard school curriculum. Arguably, it’s this kind of biopic that, if it finds an audience, has the most potential for impact. For instance, Hidden Figures, perhaps the most successful example of such a biopic in recent years, solidified Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson into the public memory of the space race.

Chevalier, the new biopic chronicling the life of virtuoso violinist and champion fencer Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Chevalier de Saint-Georges, belongs to this third category. The first Black composer to receive widespread critical acclaim in Europe, Bologne’s life feels tailor-made for such a Hollywood treatment.

Born in 1745 to Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a plantation owner in the French colony of Guadeloupe, and enslaved Senegalese woman named Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), Joseph was uprooted from his home and separated from his mother at a young age when his father sent him to France for his schooling. While ostracized by many of his peers, Joseph nonetheless excelled, particularly in music and swordsmanship. At various points in his adult life, he was a music teacher to Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), nearly became the director of the Paris Opéra, potentially the inspiration for the villain of one of Mozart’s most famous operas (he was jealous), and fought on the frontlines of the French Revolution.

In fact, Bologne’s life is so well suited to dramatization that Chevalier, helmed by veteran TV director Stephen Williams (Watchmen, Westworld, Lost) from a script by Stefani Robinson (Atlanta) often feels pulled in a few too many directions to fully do any of them justice.

Stylistically, the film starts on a swaggering high, opening with young Joseph exploding onto the Paris music scene with a swagger in his step as he interrupts Mozart (Joseph Prowen) mid-performance in order to challenge him to a violin-off, depicted with all the frenetic energy and showmanship of a rap battle. (Joseph wins, of course.) From there, the film’s aesthetics start to skew more utilitarian than particularly inspired, although there are a handful of other standout sequences scattered throughout. The film generally falls somewhere between Amma Asante’s Belle and Bridgerton, not quite as overtly anachronistic as the latter (barring a few notable exceptions), but also less differential to the tropes of a traditional period piece than the former. Aesthetically and tonally, the film generally takes a middle-of-the-road approach that, while not actively bothersome, gets rather dull and staid, and feels particularly ill-suited to a story about such a trailblazing talent.

The script similarly gets the job done while also struggles with some of the typical biopic hurdles—namely, trying to cover more ground than can be crammed into a feature-length runtime while also maintaining a satisfying degree of depth. Not only does Chevalier bite off more than it can properly chew, the areas where the film does choose to direct its focus sometimes feel rather questionably selected.

Thematically, Chevalier takes a broadly compelling approach to Joseph’s relationship with his Blackness—largely by proxy through his relationship with his mother Nanon, who is freed upon Georges’ death and comes to France to live with Joseph after decades of separation. However, much gets lost in the details; in spite of solid performances, there are odd ways in which the plot fails to best set up its own narrative arcs for success. The only parent we see Joseph interact with as a child is his father (who then fully disappears as a character from the film), and the emphasis on Joseph’s relationship with Nanon feels introduced too late to pack a full emotional wallop.

While the musician’s relationship with his mother comes into play oddly late in the game, there are other prominent aspects of Joseph’s life that feel weirdly forgotten throughout. Almost all the footage of Joseph fencing-an art he was potentially even more renowned in than his music-is found in the trailer, and his revolutionary best friend Philippe (Alex Fitzalan), a young nobleman and prominent revolutionary, quickly vanishes from the plot except for when something political occasionally needs explaining.

When push comes to shove, Chevalier consistently focuses in one direction: Joseph’s relationships with white women. Save for his relationship with his mother, the three most central relationships Joseph has in the film are with white women: Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), whose support skyrockets him straight to stardom; opera star Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Mimi Driver), who spitefully conspires against him after he rebuffs her sexual advances; and Marie-Josephine, the Marquise de Montalembert (Samara Weaving), his married muse and eventual lover.

There is, to be sure, a lot to unpack in the complicated legacy of racial dynamics specific to such relationships between Black men and white women, and the film does explore these dynamics with commendable nuance in the way Joseph is at once coveted and objectified. However, so much focus is given to exploring how Joseph interacts with these three influential white women that so much else about his life feels pushed to the side—his arc at times feels more implied than thoroughly, satisfyingly explored.

Kelvin Harrison Jr., a skilled musician himself, is ideally suited to the role of Joseph, and brings an impressive gravitas to the part. He’s the caliber of actor who can do quite a lot with just a little, and the end result here is solidly watchable, but still, it’s hard not to imagine just how much he might have been able to give if the script had given him more to dig into.

Ultimately, Chevalier brings Joseph Bologne’s story to the big screen in a solidly watchable, if not particularly inspired fashion—it’s good, but feels like something that, with a bolder creative approach and more balanced script, could have been great.