Chevalier is a tough movie to review because it’s simultaneously pretty good and rather bad. Both aspects keep flopping back and forth in my mind like an optical illusion that you see one way for a few seconds, then another. Illusion may be the best description because it purports to be a historical biopic, but really it is using a historical figure as a jumping-off point to sell a very specific type of fantasy to a modern audience. It is made to a high standard of quality but in service of something against reality. The nuggets of truth here are interesting, but the exaggerations cancel them out.
You can tell a lot about a movie from its opening scene, and this is especially true in Chevalier. A black man (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) busts into a Mozart concert, by which I mean the actual Mozart playing his music to an audience with a group of musicians. And by “busts into,” I mean he throws open the doors, challenges him to a fiddle-off, grabs a violin off some guy in the band, then proceeds to destroy Mozart through dueling solos. So right away, we know this is going to take little nuggets of truth and either embellish the hell out of them or make up events out of whole cloth. The fact that both guys were speaking perfectly modern English (Mozart spoke German while the title character spoke French) had me weary they were about to devolve into the actual notes of Devil Went Down to Georgia. Mercifully this is no A Knight’s Tale — period-appropriate(ish) music is used throughout.
“…throws open the doors, challenges him to a fiddle-off, grabs a violin off some guy in the band, then proceeds to destroy Mozart…”
Cut to years earlier, and we find out that the challenger is Joseph Bologne because we see him as a kid being dropped off by his slave-owning father at a boarding school because musical talent is worth ripping him away from his enslaved mother. Joseph learns fencing, this somehow becomes a metaphor, and before you know it, the Queen of France, Marie Antionette (Lucy Boynton), becomes a fan and names Joseph the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (basically a knight). From now on, we’ll call him Chevalier, since that’s the title of the movie. So Chevalier is hanging out with Marie Antionette at the opera and parties, as one does, and they decide that he should be the next opera chief, if he can beat her other choice at some kind of opera-off.
So Chevalier writes an opera and gets an attractive young lady, Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), to star in it, as opposed to the shrill old-school opera-looking people in the other opera, symbolized by La Guimard (Minnie Driver). There is only one problem – Marie-Josephine is an aristocrat, and her husband, the marquis de Montalembert (Marton Csokas), who leads the crown’s military, has forbidden her to sing. She sneakily does, but there’s a second problem, Chevalier still doesn’t get the opera gig because of racism. And then there’s the even bigger third problem – Marie-Josephine gets knocked up, and it isn’t clear if the baby is Chevalier’s or her husband’s. Meanwhile, tensions are brewing with the monarchy because Chevalier is done with Marie Antoinette and the marquis.
"…it's simultaneously pretty good and rather bad."