In the grand opening of Stephen Williams’ Chevalier, we see a musical maestro entertaining an audience with a violin. It is the late 18th century and this special star is none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who introduces himself with narcissistic relish. Before he can take his bow, a challenge arises from the audience as a mysterious figure in the form of a rival violinist. His name is Joseph Bologne and he soon takes center stage for this performance and the proceeding biopic.
Bologne is not just any other violinist. As the illegitimate son of a plantation owner and his enslaved mistress, his presence as a Black man in French high society is fraught with tension. His unique privilege comes from his extraordinary musical talent, which was recognized by his father at a young age. Enrolling him in a prestigious academy, he eventually grows to be an accomplished performer, with the ego to match. These qualities endear him to the queen Marie Antoinette, who bestows on him the new name of Chevalier de Saint-Georges to signify his new status at court. But resentment begins to build toward him as Chevalier hopes to make an even bigger name for himself, all while a revolution threatens to unseat the aristocracy forever.
At once a historical drama about the French revolution, a forbidden romance and a biopic, Chevalier unfortunately struggles to juggle all of its competing parts. With much of the narrative focused on the court, the motivations behind the French Revolution are murky, lacking the specificity of a working class citizen to drive the buildup to the film’s admittedly thrilling final scene. Meanwhile, the courtship between Chevalier and the married White opera singer (seductively portrayed by Samara Weaving), is so blatantly dangerous that it makes it hard for it to connect with the audience. And finally, Chevalier’s rise and fall due to his ego and his vices follows familiar tropes of the biopic genre.
Still, the film does succeed in other aspects. Some key betrayals crucially remove the facade of Chevalier’s presumed status among the aristocracy. Furthermore, the film is sumptuous to look at and listen to, thanks to the opulence of the costumes and sets, which indirectly convey the urgency of the revolution. And the music gives the film its most impactful moments. In particular, the opening violin duel between Mozart and Chevalier and the rousing conclusion which encompass the spirit of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” And perhaps most crucially, Kelvin Harrison Jr. – who is no stranger to musical roles – makes for a fine Chevalier.
But despite a compelling central performance and its beautiful visuals and classical music, it’s hard not to feel somewhat disappointed by the overall storytelling. The premise promises much, but can’t quite deliver. Though Chevalier showcases many of the virtues of big screen, perhaps a complex story like this would have been better served by the longform format of television.