2022, Movies

Chevalier (2022, Stephen Williams)

This film purports to tell the story of the first major black composer. But it’s a fantasy, not a real biography, and it spends much of its runtime obsessing about a made up love triangle and focusing on the friendships of the composer that may be made up.

It’s a ridiculous movie.

SPOILERS

The opening scenes of this film were so bad I definitely thought about walking out. That’s not something I do, but the absurdity of a spontaneous violin duel with Mozart (who is British in this film), which Joseph wins, of course, and then the quick resort to a montage (which made me think of “Montage”) had me despairing for the rest of the film.

You know how I’m always complaining you can tell debut films because the direction is bad? Well, in this case, it sure felt like the screenplay was written by someone who had never written a movie before. And, you know what? That turns out to be correct. This film was written by a TV writer. And you can tell.

This movies is competently directed – there’s actually a lot of fairly audacious camera work. The problem with the film is not with the direction (and it is not his first feature, though it’s his first feature in a very long time).

The problem is the story. And it’s not just that much of the story appears to be made up, though that isn’t great either. The film gets some basic facts write about Joseph Bologne but makes up so much. Rather, the problem is the focus of the story: primarily, the focus of the film is on a love triangle Bologne gets in and his friendship with Marie Antoinette. From the very little research I did, I can find zero basis for the love triangle and he seems to have performed for Marie Antoinette once or twice.

But, more importantly, this is a film about the first major black composer in western art music. Surely that’s a good story. (His Wikipedia article makes it seem like he had an extremely interesting life.) But this film is interested in a (made up) love story and pre-Revolution court politics and gossip. It just misses the mark, and bizarrely.

Everything about it feels false: though I know only so much about the Revolution, nothing about that feels real. Here’s a rather ridiculous example: in one scene near the end of the film, Joseph goes out into the street and sees someone shot at a barricade. And then, in the climax, Marie Antoinette, the most hated woman in Paris, travels to his performance by carriage, with a handful of guards, in order to tell him in person not to put on an instrumental performance she thinks will mock her. She does this after, we are told, the barricades are already up.

There’s a real Les Miz vibe to how this movie thinks about the French Revolution, in that the Revolution is merely a dramatic backdrop for an over-the-top story about personal betrayal. (Les Miz is, of course, set in a different revolution.)

But the pre-Revolution stuff isn’t really convincing either. Jenn noted some costume issues, but the film glosses over so much of Joseph’s early life and his early success. It tries to use a couple highlights (a real fencing match, an imagined musical match – Mozart was once his neighbour though I couldn’t find anything about him upstaging Mozart) to substitute for the actual story of his life.

Joseph Bologne’s story is really interesting. I would like to read a book about his life. (If you know one, let me know in the comments.) But this film is just a mess, and it absolutely does not do justice to this man’s story.

A very silly film.

4/10

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