Chevalier, by Albert W. Vogt III

There were three films premiering this weekend: Evil Dead RiseGuy Ritchie’s The Covenant, and Chevalier (2022).  If there is a moment when you thought that I would be seeing Evil Dead Rise, then you have not read many reviews fromThe Legionnaire.  Regardless, if this is your first time reading this blog, then know that, with a few very select exceptions, I will not look at anything demonic.  That is why last weekend I suffered through Renfield instead of watching The Pope’s Exorcist.  Judging a film by its preview is the cinematic equivalent of doing the same with a book and its cover. Nonetheless, based on the one preview I did see for Evil Dead Rise, I could not discern any redeeming qualities.  It is best to error on the side of caution in such cases, in my experience.  As for Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, that was almost my choice.  The title is vaguely Biblical, and the trailers seem to cast the proceedings in a sort of selfless light.  Then again, it also seemed to have the potential for more action schlock.  It is Guy Ritchie, after all.  No, the one film among these that was always going to attract the attention of this old historian was Chevalier.  Hopefully you will see why this was a good choice.

If most people know one name from classical music, it is not Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.  “Chevalier,” by the way, was the French equivalent of a knight before France did away with their monarchy, the revolution for which forms the background of this film.  At any rate, the name would probably recognize from the classical world is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen).  He gives a concert in Paris that is upstaged by the bold and brash Joseph, chevalier of France.  Before he gets these airs and titles, he is the bastard son (Reuben Anderson) of a French nobleman, George Bologne (Jim High), from the colony of Guadaloupe in the Caribbean, born of a slave woman named Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo).  Out of whatever shred of decency George has, he takes young Joseph to Paris to be educated at La Boessiere’s (Ben Bradshaw) prestigious academy.  Before latent racism leads to Joseph’s denial, he demonstrates his prodigious talent with the violin and is accepted.  Along the way, he is also taught to fence, at which he also excels.  Indeed, it is in this capacity that he first gains the notice of King Louis XVI (Sam Barlien) and Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), rulers of France.  Upon defeating a challenger to the school’s honor in a duel before France’s monarchs, Joseph is granted the eponymous title.  He also wins the particular favor of the queen, which is instrumental (no pun intended) in his early rise through French society.  This opens many doors for him, including to a party hosted at the palace in honor of Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver) after her operatic performance.  La Guimard, as she is more familiarly known, recognizes talent in Joseph and wants to “collaborate” with him.  Please note that the quotations are also meant to be shorthand for the innuendo in this scene.  Yet, Joseph’s eye has been caught by Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), the marquise de Montalembert, who is singing at the soiree.  La Guimard is jealous, of course, and instead attaches herself to foreign composer Christoph Gluck (Henry-Lloyd Hughes), who has come to France in the hopes of being named director of the Paris Opera.  This is a post on which Joseph has set his eyes.  Thus, confident of his victory, he proposes a competition between himself and Christoph: whoever can create the best opera will win the job.  The queen approves and now it is time to get to work.  Just as he is about to set to composing, Nanon arrives in Paris on the heels of the news that George has passed away.  This is a slight complication.  The bigger one is when his first choice to be the female lead in his composition, Marie-Josephine, is denied by her domineering and racist husband Marc René (Marton Csokas), the marquis de Montalembert.  Such is Marie-Josephine’s disappointment over this news, and her growing feelings for Joseph, that she goes behind her husband’s back to appear in the opera.  Predictably, this leads to a love affair between the two, which has the added stress of being forbidden by French society, not to mention the adultery.  Heedless of these pitfalls, they press forward, and Joseph believes he is in line for everything he seeks when his piece receives rave reviews.  What derails his upward ascent is, yet again, racism, this time from other members of theater society who use their influence to ensure that a mulatto (this means somebody of mixed descent, skin tone wise, and yes, it is stupid) does not fill the august position of director of the Paris opera.  Feeling betrayed, a drunken Joseph berates the queen to her face at court.  Walking away, he finds a group of guards waiting to do him harm, ordered there by Marc.  Only Marie-Josephine’s pleadings keep them from ending Joseph’s playing career, but Marc orders Joseph to stay away from Marie-Josephine.  Joseph is shunned by the society he thought he had taken a place in, despite Nanon’s reminders of this impossibility.  Thus, he turns his support to the growing revolution, particularly when he learns that the child Marie-Josephine had been carrying had been murdered by Marc when it turned out to be Joseph’s.  He gets his long-time friend and supporter Louis Philippe II (Alex Fitzalan), Duke of Orléans, to help him put on a concert for the people of Paris, the proceeds of which would go to support the growing revolution.  The queen learns of this and sends Marc to the performance hall to arrest Joseph as soon as the orchestra begins playing.  When Marc’s men move to act, though, they are met by cries of “liberté” and “égalité.”  It is okay if you do not know what that means.  For us, it means that Joseph is able to walk free, and this is where the film ends.

Because Chevalier is a period piece (a fancy term for “historical), this historian must make some comments on that subject.  While I loved the movie, I had no prior knowledge of the title character.  The times in which he lived are as familiar to me as any other historical event.  To fill in my gaps, I did a minimum amount of historical research.  The problem is that the record of Joseph’s life is sketchy.  You might think that, despite the color of his skin, he was able to rise pretty high in society.  History rarely entirely forgets about such people, no matter their background.  Look at a person like Toussaint Louverture, whose life overlapped with Joseph.  He is known as the Father of Haiti.  Joseph is recognized as the earliest example in Europe of a composer of African descent.  Thus, why is one known to us while the other is only recently being pieced together from the scant documentation?  Put simply, racism.  The French Revolution espoused ideals of equality for all, but then Napoleon gave up that part of them that pertained to slavery when he reinstituted it in the colonies.  This was partly in response to Ouverture successfully overthrowing French rule in Haiti. The real-life Joseph, so far as we can tell, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, known more commonly as the Rights of Man, the document that codified the French Revolution.  He even served in the revolutionary army as an officer.  He is also known to have been an associate of Ouverture.  Thus, as the egalitarian portion of the movement gave way to the Reign of Terror and heads literally began to roll (or fall into baskets thanks to Madame Guillotine), Joseph was arrested and put in jail.  With the rise of Napoleon, Joseph’s contributions were erased as much as possible.  For a filmmaker, this can be a blessing.  It allows one to fill in the gaps as one pleases, and there seems to be a lot of this here.  The basic outline seems to be true in terms of the principal characters, but the timeline is out of whack.  On the whole, these are forgivable offenses in the face of a quality film.

While watching Chevalier, the word that is used so often that you cannot help but notice it is “égalité.”  A close second is “liberté.”  These come directly from the French Revolution.  Given the historical setting, they are unavoidable.  The one this Catholic reviewer would like to focus on is égalité.  Its English equivalent is equality.  Like many French words, they look pretty similar to one another.  Interestingly, we get the loftier ideal of egalitarianism from the French form.  Put differently, we do not typically say “equalitarianism,” though my spell checker on Microsoft Word did not put the squiggly red line underneath it.  At any rate, we say egalitarianism to mean the deeper notion that everyone is equal and deserve rights and opportunities.  Whether we care to acknowledge it, this comes from God.  God does not see you or me as any different.  Sure, the idea has more of a political connotation, and God has little care for such silly human institutions.  Jesus simply tells us to render unto Caesar what belongs to his government.  The better portion is reserved for Him.  That better portion is our souls.  That is what He wants from all of us, and it is up to us to do what we can to be able to spend eternity with Him.  The film has much to say on these subjects.  At one point, Marie Antoinette tells Joseph that no one can topple what has been ordained by God.  She is right, actually, but she is mistaken in her notion that God established the French monarchy.  They told people this, and there were those in the Church that upheld this notion.  I cannot think of any the Church Universal remembers as saints, for what that is worth, that believed this sort of thing and it is not a position it would support today.  If you know Pope Francis at all, you will know the truth of this statement.  Another line in the film that speaks to how God views the soul is when Joseph comments on how it is more important than any fortune.  Again, true statement, even if it is in reference to his love for the married Marie-Josephine.

If there is one downfall to Chevalier, it is the love-affair between Joseph and Marie-Josephine.  Even though they seem to genuinely love one another, it is still adultery.  Who knows, maybe God wanted them together?  Still, there are better ways of going about it that they chose to ignore.  The shadiness of their affair is offset by Marc’s monstrous act.  A pro-choice person might watch this film and think it an argument for abortion considering the challenges of society at that time.  It also does not help that the word “choice” is often repeated.  This Catholic would argue the contrary, and cite the pain felt by both Joseph and Marie-Josephine.  Even if it is the result of their indiscretions, no child deserves the kind of fate theirs met.  This also appears to have actually happened.  In summation, it all makes for a heart wrenching tale that will satisfy on many levels.


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