REVIEW: Chevalier (2023)

This weekend saw the release of Chevalier, the latest musician biopic. This time, the gimmick is that it’s a period piece telling the lost life story of a black classical musician and composer. I didn’t know anything about Chevalier; when I first heard the title, I assumed it referred to Maurice Chevalier. But the trailer looked decent, so I checked it out. Let’s find out if you should do the same. 

Chevalier tells the untold story of Joseph Bologne. Born to a well-to-do Frenchman and his slave woman, Bologne is enrolled in an upper-class boy’s school and excels at music. Bologne becomes a violin virtuoso, rising among the ranks of French polite society and earning the title Chevalier de St. George from Marie Antoinette. Chevalier struggles as a black man in a white man’s world, growing increasingly frustrated with his unfair lot in life. 

The makeup and costumes in Chevalier are superb. I don’t have any issues with the designs and set decorating. The gowns on the ladies are particularly impressive. However, the editing and pacing of this movie are bizarre. The beginning, showing Joseph’s childhood and acceptance into the La Boesserie Academy, is rushed through and ends as quickly as it began. His whole school career takes up less than five minutes, which I find an odd creative choice. They make such a big deal of a mixed-race boy being allowed to attend, but then the movie treats this as an afterthought. We get a brief montage showing Joseph’s hardships and triumphs at school, but we could have learned more about him through full scenes. I’m not sure why they rush through this crucial setup, only showing Joseph’s father once. We only see a flash of his enslaved mom at this point, though she resurfaces once he’s an adult and an established composer. The thing is, once we get to Joseph’s career, the story doesn’t seem that focused or thought-out. I don’t see why we couldn’t spend more time with him as a child to learn more about his parents and school years. 


In addition to strange pacing choices, the editing is sometimes confusing and abrupt. The cut to adult life is strangely edited, and other significant time jumps throughout are poorly explained. There’s also a scene where time passes quickly, going from day to the next night. This isn’t that bad, but it doesn’t look theater-quality; it reminded me of something from TV or a low-grade streaming movie. If they had the budget for such lavish sets and costumes, why edit the film this way? The acting mostly stays in the decent range. Nobody does a lousy job, but you won’t be lying awake thinking about these performances, either. Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph is my favorite performance in the film, but my husband likes Samara Weaving as Marie Josephine the best. Minnie Driver essentially reprises her role from Phantom of the Opera, embodying the opera’s prima donna. She’s a total drama queen, but unlike Carlotta in Phantom, her feud is with Joseph, not her fellow leading lady, Marie Josephine. Despite already being married to a respected French nobleman, Weaving’s Marie Josephine is Joseph’s love interest. Her performance is more than serviceable, but I just felt the most emotion in Harrison Jr.’s. 

Chevalier has these technical problems holding it back, but in my opinion, the movie’s greatest fault is the lack of an emotional throughline. This relates somewhat to the editing problem; longer sequences showing Joseph’s youthful interactions with his parents and schoolmates would have done much for his character. Chevalier is a prodigy and an outsider, but who is he outside of that? What do we know about this man besides the categorical boxes we can shove him into? What does he value? What does he oppose? They toy with the idea that he’s a black man who wants to fit into white society, which he abandons. But there’s no progression there. This character doesn’t develop over time so much as suddenly change his mind so the story can happen. They could have done something interesting with his mother, which is where I thought the story was heading. As a young boy, he’s ripped away from his mother and her culture – his culture, up to that point. In enrolling Joseph in La Boessiere’s, his father gives him opportunities most of his status never get. However, he’s also tearing the child out of his mother’s embrace and everything he knows and loves. He doesn’t see his mom again until he’s grown when his father dies, freeing his mother to join him in his Paris home. He’s initially cruel and dismissive to the woman who birthed him, sassing her at every turn and rejecting her native language. He chides her for murmuring to the maids in her own tongue: “French is the preferred language here.” 


I feel they tried to do something with this storyline; he runs to his mother’s waiting arms when things go awry, and his world comes crashing down. But, as I mentioned, this isn’t a natural or compelling progression. He’s playing a white aristocrat until something terrible happens; then, it’s off with the wig. There’s a long, complicated history surrounding black hair and hairstyles on which I won’t pretend to be an expert. Joseph donning his cornrows as he marches to the stage is a political act in a world that despises him for being better than they allow his kind to be. I like what they were going for here, but the film doesn’t earn it! Make us understand this man and what he’s about, develop his character, then make him question everything and change. If the relationship with his mother and his two very different cultures/social classes were explored more, this film would be emotionally satisfying, at the least.

Then, we have the historical aspect of Chevalier. Again, I won’t pretend to be an expert, but there are moments in this film where I stopped and thought, “That can’t be true,” or, “No way this happened.” After the aforementioned mad dash through Joseph’s childhood, Chevalier cuts to a violin duel between him and Mozart. The first thing I did after the movie was Google this, and it appears that, to the shock of exactly nobody, this never happened. There are other events in the film that made me feel similarly, one of them involving the motivation behind Minnie Driver’s character, La Guimard. I won’t spoil what exactly transpires, but I think you’ll feel the same when you see it. Is this a historical biopic or historical fiction? I know art takes liberties, but I fail to believe this man’s life was so dull they had to make up fairy tales about how he’s the bestest and everyone wants to be him or be with him. Finally, I don’t think Marie Antoinette deserves the negative light in which the film portrays her. Given how her life ended, why make her out to be this untrustworthy friend and dishonest ruler? We can debate the merits of the French Revolution, but how she was treated disgusts me; I feel the same about the Romanov family killing. At one point, the movie even questions women’s treatment and why their husbands get to make their decisions. What about Marie Antoinette? Why are the Revolution and all this ire, even in the modern day, attributed to her? What about Louis XVI? Wouldn’t he be the true figurehead in all this?

In short, I don’t understand if Chevalier is supposed to be an inspirational, historical, or entertaining movie. It’s serviceable in the latter category and not very good in the first two.


Chevalier (2023)

Plot - 4
Acting - 7
Direction/Editing - 5
Music/Sound - 8
Drama - 5



Chevalier has some merit, but it is, first and foremost, an exercise in disappointment and wasted potential,

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