Excellence, Joseph’s father told him. Excellence would be his shield. And young Joseph Bologne needed one.
France in the 18th century was hardly a bastion of enlightened thinking, after all. It was a land of corsets and powdered wigs, where your lot in life was often dependent on to whom you were born.
And Joseph’s own lineage is … complicated.
His plantation-owning father could certainly move in France’s higher social circles, even if his plantation was located in faraway Guadeloupe. But Joseph’s mother was a slave—technically, his father’s property. In France, where men and women powder their faces to a snowy white, Joseph’s dark skin stood out.
“You must be excellent,” Georges Bologne told his son, “not give anyone a reason to tear you down.”
And so Joseph was. He made a name as a champion fencer, and his skill with a rapier earned him the title Chevalier, or knight—from Queen Marie Antoinette herself, no less. He was known as a poet, a dancer, a composer. But put a violin in his hand, and Joseph’s excellence shone beyond measure. He became a celebrity in aristocratic France, attending the most exclusive parties, dancing at the most exquisite balls. He’s a favorite of the queen and a star in all the right circles.
But even excellence isn’t enough to open every door.
Even as much of Paris’ glitterati pays homage to this talented man, others resent him, even considering him an enemy of true (read: white) Frenchmen everywhere. His mother—freed after Georges died and reunited with Joseph after decades of separation—reminds him of his past. And she stirs something new, or perhaps something old and buried, inside him.
Joseph is a man from two worlds, but he belongs to neither. He longs for true acceptance in the society he paradoxically dominates. And to earn that acceptance, the gifted musician will need to stand out to leave no doubt about his talents: He wants to lead the famed Paris Opera.
But to do that, he’ll need to win a contest and create an opera that will wow the judges. And to create such an opera, he’ll need someone to star in it—the lovely, talented and married Marie-Josephine.
Yes, Joseph excels at a great many things. But it’s not enough for Joseph to be a celebrity. He truly wants to be a part of this world. And he hopes that his excellence will unlock these final doors.
Chevalier is based on the real, and remarkable, Joseph Bologne, who’d come to be known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He’s a man of many talents, but perhaps we should more appropriately applaud his courage. It can’t be easy to navigate a world in which you look so different from everyone else, a world filled with both overt and covert prejudice. But he does so, pushing not just to make a place for himself, but to, in his own way, show that world how shortsighted and wrong-headed those prejudices are.
But as history (and the movie) pushes forward, the ideals that will eventually mold the French Revolution— liberté, égalité, fraternité—become more potent in society, and more attractive to Joseph. While he tries to make his way in this aristocratic society, the prejudice that he and others experience, as well as the needs he sees in the streets of Paris, slowly galvanize him to take a greater part in changing that society. The French Revolution certainly had its problems, of course. But those core values of liberty, equality and fraternity are still virtues that we can applaud.
Queen Marie Antoinette downplays any possibility of revolution. “You cannot topple that which has been ordained by God,” she says. Marie Antoinette and Joseph mock an opera director from the Queen’s box. She suggests that he looks dead, and Joseph suggests sprinkling the guy with holy water to send him back from whence he came.
Marie-Josephine—Joseph’s would be opera star—prays fervently in a church, adorned (obviously) with religious statues, paintings and stained glass.
Women are referred to as the “daughters of goddesses.”
Joseph was quite the ladies’ man as his star rose in Paris. We see him in bed with two women following a concert (one of whom covers her apparently bare chest with bedding), while other women have apparently passed out or fallen asleep on various bits of furniture. (Most seem to be wearing just their era-appropriate skivvies, which are relatively modest by today’s standards.) Someone later jokes with Joseph about “bedding” his admirers night after night.
But Joseph has his eyes on Marie-Josephine, who’s married to the powerful Marquis de Montalembert. When Joseph seeks permission from him for Marie-Josephine to star in his opera, the marquis suspects Joseph of wanting more from his wife. And while de Montalembert is the film’s prime villain, he’s nevertheless correct in his suspicions. After the marquis leaves Paris, Marie-Josephine agrees to be in the opera (against her husband’s wishes), and soon she and Joseph embark on a long-term love affair.
We see them kiss frequently and in bed occasionally. Their acts are committed to film, and while we don’t see anything critical, the scenes are both intimate and erotic (albeit in a PG-13 manner). Sometimes the two lounge in bed, their privates covered by the bedcovers. They talk about running off together repeatedly. De Montalembert, upon his return, suspects the two might’ve had a relationship—and those suspicions are later confirmed by irrefutable evidence.
Another powerful woman of the opera, La Guimard, tries to seduce Joseph, telling him euphemistically that perhaps they could join their “talents” in private and uttering one or two double entendres.
Joseph’s opera revolves around a love story. Eighteenth-century fashion was never shy about cleavage, and we see plenty of it at various parties.
We never hear whether the relationship between Joseph’s father (Georges) and mother (Nanon) was consensual—though given the unequal footing between the two, an argument could be made whether real “consent” was even possible.
As mentioned, Joseph’s fame was built not just upon his abilities as a violinist, but as a fencer. We see him in a fencing bout, where both he and his opponent draw blood (most notably on his opponent’s chest). The fight is presented to the audience, and to us, as something of a battle between traditional French values—which include a healthy dose of racism—and the more enlightened morals that some are trying to usher in.
We see little more of that swordplay elsewhere, but Joseph does fight with several soldiers, getting the best of some of them before being overwhelmed. He’s bullied and beaten up, both in school and on the streets of Paris. And he’s sometimes kicked repeatedly when he’s lying on the ground. De Montalembert punches someone in the stomach and threatens to break all of his fingers before being convinced to relent. (We’re told he’s a “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of guy.)
As the French Revolution draws nearer, the threat of violence grows greater. We see angry demonstrators in the streets, and one is shot by soldiers. An officer seems to be overwhelmed by protestors after pointing a gun at someone.
Joseph was the result of a sexual assault, it seems; as a boy, he was taken away from his mother by force. (In flashback, we see Joseph’s mother, Nanon, struggling against some guards who are pulling her backward, apparently away from her newborn boy.)
[Spoiler Warning] Joseph and Marie-Josephine’s affair results in a pregnancy and live birth of a son. We’re told that when Marie-Josephine’s husband saw the baby’s skin color, he had the child killed.
One f-word and one s-word. We hear the word “b–tard” and “d—n.” God’s name is misused three times, and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Joseph drinks heavily during an opera, then attends a party where he drinks even more. The intoxicated violinist makes a scene. We see people elsewhere drink wine and champagne.
Racism is obviously a big theme in Chevalier. Sometimes that racism is quite overt: Joseph is compared to a monkey or ape on occasion, and he’s told to return to “wherever you came from.” At other junctures, it’s more subtle. He’s sometimes discriminated against to keep political or societal peace. And at one juncture, Joseph even believes one his best friends might be using him as some sort of racial token.
The most striking instance of institutional racism, perhaps, revealed when Joseph talks about his inability to marry. He’s unable to legally marry a Caucasian woman. But, as a member of high society, he’s unable to marry someone of his own skin color because she’d be below his social station—which, again, is illegal.
Nanon, Joseph’s mother, has had her own much more overt issues with racism, obviously. As a slave, her sexual encounter with Joseph’s father couldn’t be consensual. But she tells Joseph, “The greatest evil is not what they’ve done to our bodies; it’s what they’ve done to our minds.” The pain, she suggests, of losing Joseph was horrific.
Though Joseph’s father did seek to cultivate an environment in which his son’s musical talents could thrive and grow, Joseph later says that he felt abandoned.
Joseph has quite a high opinion of himself, and he’s not afraid to show it.
When you pluck a character from history and throw him or her into a movie, you often expect that some aspects of that character will be exaggerated. But in a way, Chevalier actually underplays the real Joseph Bologne.
The film gives us a taste of Joseph’s fencing talents. It doesn’t say how he thwarted the simultaneous attack of five men (some sources say six) in London. The film says nothing about his skills in marksmanship (where he supposedly could shoot individual buttons off coats) or swimming (he could swim across the Seine River with one hand literally tied behind his back), or ice skating or horseback riding or any number of other reported skills. If Marvel was assembling a legion of historical superheroes, Joseph Bologne would undoubtedly make the cut.
The movie also conveniently stops just as the French Revolution is beginning, allowing it to unabashedly trumpet its values of equality and liberty—and skipping that era’s later tragic, terrifying excesses. It lauds Bologne’s participation—but ignores the fact that increasingly radical revolutionists imprisoned Bologne for two years. (Unlike some of his friends, he escaped the guillotine.)
And while the film omits plenty of interesting bits of Bologne’s life, what it keeps might keep many families away.
Bologne’s affair with Marie-Josephine is true to history (at least according to one of the age’s gossip writers), and his dalliances with others were widely rumored as well. Those interludes take up a significant amount of screen time, and the film encourages us to root for Joseph and Marie-Josephine’s love instead of marital fidelity. A few curse words sour this otherwise sweet historical score a bit more.
It’s probably well past time that Chevalier’s fascinating life was brought to the big screen. But while this is a fine, interesting movie on many levels, I look forward to his next cinematic appearance—when we can see more of his life and less of his bed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.