Step back into the days of pre-revolution France, with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette on the throne, and you will meet a virtuoso violinist, champion fencer and the illegitimate son born in Guadaloupe to an African slave and a French plantation owner, Joseph Bologne. Brought to Paris by his father and enrolled as a young boy in a prestigious boarding school, Bologne established himself in a society who regarded him as inferior, yet he was anything but and actually charmed them to the point that he was sought after repeatedly for his attention to the point of jealousy which he could easily disarm with his charm.
Marie Antoinette took note, giving him the title of Chevalier Saint-Georges, and so the film begins, set just before the imminent commencement of the French Revolution in 1789. Seeking the newly available and coveted position of Paris Opera’s artistic director, he entered into a competition with a foreigner, a white foreigner for the position. Each would write and present an opera to be judged, and the winner would earn the title and role.
This is where the emotional upheaval and tension begins, and without giving anything away, the compositions, the décor, the sartorial artistry will dazzle so as to maybe comfort you when the pain of news the breaks Joseph Bologne’s heart arrives.
The film ends with the dissolution of Chevalier and Antoinette’s friendship, and we read in the epilogue that Bologne marches proudly with the revolutionaries into war, leading the first all-black battalion into battle.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. who stars as Chevalier, hails from New Orleans, Louisiana, and has had small roles in films such as 12 Years a Slave and Ender’s Game, but Chevalier is his first major leading role, a role in which yes, he did play the violin in the scenes. And while he was given guidance from classical music experts, the fact that he does play the violin, lends more credibility to the story-line being presented. Premiering at Toronto’s International Film Festival this past September (2022), the opening scene when Chevalier is now grown and has established himself well in Parisian society places him on stage next to Mozart. And while a scene that is fictitious in a film based on a true story, knowing that Bologne and Mozart were contemporaries demonstrates that they most likely inspired each other in ways we might never know. Mozart’s name has been renowned for centuries and Bologne’s might well have been as well had Napoleon Bonaparte not ordered that all his work and name recognition be destroyed.
Having looked forward to watching this film since I learned it would be premiering, I was in the theater on the first day, and was moved to joyous celebration, anger, tears and awe as well as heart-break. If you enjoy classical music, if you are an Anglophile, if you want to explore history told by more than just the victors of the time, this is a film to watch. Be sure to tune in to episode #356 where I speak about the film in even more detail, sharing why Bologne’s compositions were largely lost, and intentionally so, and how his life unfolded after the revolution.
Below are two compositions I enjoy listening to (of many) that were composed by Bologne, as well as the trailer to the film, Chevalier, that is in theaters now. You can purchase and stream the soundtrack for the film here. I especially love this track as it is the final piece of music shared in the final scene in the film. If you’ve seen the film, you will know why it is so powerful.
Chevalier is the Petit Plaisir of episode #356 of The Simple Sophisticate podcast, What I Have Learned in French Class, So Far . . ., Part Cinq