‘Chevalier’ (2023) Hulu Movie Review: Stream It Or Skip It?
Chevalier (now on Hulu) is a rich and inviting slice of historical fiction that keenly embellishes the already extraordinary story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a violinist, composer, fencer and revolutionary often referred to pejoratively as the “Black Mozart.” Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves, The Trial of the Chicago 7) plays the man, the son of a plantation owner and an enslaved woman, who grew up in Paris and achieved remarkable things in a society deeply ingrained with racial prejudice. Director Stephen Williams (who most notably helmed dozens of episodes of Lost and is a producer of HBO’s Watchmen series) takes a similar creative track, telling the story of an influential Black man within the confines of a period-piece genre typically reserved for the stories of privileged White people.
CHEVALIER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: ONCE UPON A TIME IN PARIS: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart His Damn Self conducts a performance for a packed house. He pauses to entertain requests, and a man speaks up – it’s Joseph Bologne. He has yarbles. Such yarbles, he asks to join the performance, and the result is a scorching violin duel between Bologne and Mozart His Damn Self, who could take this gracefully and celebrate his “competitor’s” talent, but that’s not how this works – he’d rather belittle him by calling him “a dark stranger.” And so our gentleman torches the legend with a series of white-hot runs across the strings and walks off, and if microphones had been invented yet, he’d have dropped it, THUNK.
That’s quite the opening sequence. Next is a flashback, where young Joseph is the subject of the first episode of a life chock-full of mixed blessings. His father, a rich White man, all but leaves him on the doorstep of a musical conservatory, which is where Joseph, a gifted violinist, belongs. He tells Joseph that the way to overcome what he’s about to experience is to simply “be excellent,” and he seems assured that Joseph is exactly that. It’s about as kind as an abandonment can get. He’s bullied and beaten as he grows up, but he plays better, composes better, wields a saber better than everyone else. We watch a sequence cross-cutting a vile speech about “a siege against a purity of blood” in France and Joseph fencing a White rival into the f—ing dust while Marie Antoinette Her Damn Self (Lucy Boynton) watches, her eyes wide, thrilled at the sight of this young man. And so she knights him with the incredibly French title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
ONE YEAR LATER, our Chevalier sits at Marie Antoinette’s side as she whispers in his ear her criticism of the stodgy opera they’re watching. As a Chevalier, he’s now a man of some renown – enough so the long-established opera singer Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver) tells him in so many words that she’d like to jump the shit out of his bones. But he’d rather she not; as a man about town, he often awakes in a plush pile of quilts between a couple of young honeys. Is the madame offended at being rebuffed? Boy howdy, is she; hold that thought for about 45, maybe an hour. Queen M.A. has declared that the Paris Opera needs a mighty overhaul, so the director position lies in wait for our Chevalier. He vies for the job by staging an opera, getting his ally Madame de Genlis (Sian Clifford) to secure financing while he courts her cousin, Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving), to be the lead. One hurdle: Marie-Josephine is married to a brute, the French military leader Marc Rene, the Marquis de Montelembert (Martin Csokas), who doesn’t want his wife to be on stage and ogled by men like a total ho-bag.
But! The lovely Marquis vamooses to go kill people for the sake of patriotism, opening the door for Marie-Josephine to lead the production. It also opens the door for the type of… stirrings that are very French but also very verboten among polite society. Whatta hypocritical age that was, eh? And so the Chevalier embarks upon liaisons of a dangerous kind, which involves cucking the living snot out of that pig and channeling whatever meager juices are left over into the opera. Meanwhile, as our man and his lady stir beneath the sheets, unrest stirs in the streets. Marie Antoinette said something about cake and now the French Revolution bubbles and brews; one of the leaders is the Chevalier’s longtime bestie, Philippe (Alex Fitzalan). And so this entire plot becomes a powder keg.
Photo: Everett Collection
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Well, Harrison was also in Cyrano, another period piece with its share of swordfights, broken hearts and singing. It also brings to mind Amadeus, Les Miserables and modern-day fictional-revolution masterwork Athena (at least a little bit).
Performance Worth Watching: Chevalier further establishes Harrison as a performer of substance, capable of poignantly conveying a leading man’s full spectrum of emotion. He’s quietly magnetic here (and seems like the type of burgeoning top-shelf actor who’d be burgled by the MCU to play a mildly forgettable hero).
Memorable Dialogue: Gotta love the entrance our protagonist makes:
Mozart: WHO THE F— IS THAT?
Title card (slamming down like a guillotine): CHEVALIER
Sex and Skin: THIS MOVIE IS NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING SEXY ENOUGH. In the ’90s, it’d be loaded with steamy-hot softcore schtupping, but now all we get is a few sultry glances across the bedroom and some facemashing.
Our Take: Of course Chevalier takes a lot of liberte with the true story of Joseph Bologne, but it’s nevertheless a visually handsome and thematically well-considered story that weaves current assertions about institutional racism into the usual period-piece trappings. It’s not a classic by any stretch, and it plays out in a somewhat predictable fashion; I’m not quite sure it ever lives up to that bravura opening sequence, but it offers engaging drama start to finish, and plenty of viable chemistry between Harrison and Weaving.
Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson eventually stage the events of the film as an inflection point in the French Revolution, and smartly characterize Bologne as a man who long chose to be blind to the politics of his situation – it’s easy to do when you’re partying hardy and sublimely confident in your capacity as duellist, musician and, woo woo, lover – but eventually awakens and confronts his truth. He had no choice, and in the subtext of the character lies his realization that music can be a powerful form of protest. The Chevalier takes a while to come to terms with being stuck between two cultures, but when he finally rages against the machine, you can’t help but stand up and cheer for him.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Chevalier is a rock-solid period drama that takes a necessary step toward reclaiming a long-suppressed piece of Black history.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.