Chevalier Review

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The Black people around him remind Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr., giving one of his liveliest performances ever) that “You are a visitor in their world,” as he attempts to assimilate into the white French aristocracy. Directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, Chevalier is at its most thrilling when it sees this virtuoso musician upending that world — no more entertaining and cathartic than its stupendous opening. The spirited preamble relishes the chance to introduce us to a key figure who has long been forgotten with delightful, colorful dramatic embellishments including preening, pompous Mozart (Joseph Prowen, speaking in posh Received Pronunciation) being outplayed by Saint-Georges in a violin contest. The camera sweeps round them –and sweeps the audience up with future Chevalier confidence.

This showmanship is not just for ego; it is self-defense: a flashback of his white father dropping him to a boarding school reiterates that “I must be excellent, always excellent.” It is pressure his white peers don’t have but Joseph has to constantly prove himself because otherwise he would only affirm the beliefs of those patronizing peers. Even with all his wealthy and status; race trumps nationality and social class.

The film quickly skirts off his origin story and rise to fame in order to get to Saint-Georges’ moment of enlightenment about how white French people see him (here coded as British upper classes) which becomes a double-barrelled mockery of two colonial nations. Amid hostile conversations with white French elites filled with barbs slightly modernized in tone, St-George also consults Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton)—a figure whose biopic is famous for anachronism—though even her favor fails to suffice as adequate protection here. Room after room buzzes with barely concealed enmity; contemporary arguments and inflections nestle themselves in Robinson’s script among the subtle barbs, polite chuckles and outdated aristocratic customs.

The film’s cinematography captures large, opulent rooms bathed in natural light using traditional, almost painterly imagery but this is slightly unimaginative and contributes to what feels like a long cooldown from its electrifying opening. This sense of deflation only continues as Saint-Georges engages in a doomed affair with Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving) that feels far less urgent than the other themes at play.

As a period piece concerned with how Blackness would operate within a social dynamic affecting wealthy people, it’s disappointing that the movie loses its infectious energy bit by bit. By subverting audience expectations about historical figures, Chevalier best moments both acknowledge and bemoan great showmen who have been waiting for so long to be recognized.

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