How much respect is due to the subject of historical biographies by the makers of those biographies?

Do we want histories to be factual, mostly factual, largely factual, quite factual, a bit factual, very slightly factual, or do facts not matter at all? Isn’t all history essentially fiction? Where lies that point where biopics are no longer worthy of the name biopic? Should we give them a different name (“infodramas”)? Do they require more overt framing (“The following events never happen and are only presented for entertainment purposes…”) or is this just a problem with people like me who are more pedantic about facts?

But let’s begin by stating that Chevalier is a much-welcome reminder to look at the life of the French musician Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a seriously talented individual in a world hostile to people of his ethnicity and background. He was a champion fencer as well as a musical prodigy who clearly deserves to be reappraised and celebrated. This film was a chance to reframe him in a way to bring him new fans, which makes it a real disappointment that it fails to reestablish his legacy in any meaningful way.

Here’s the problem with the film: it’s a film about now that pretends to be about then. It elevates a man called “Joseph Bologne” who has little to do with the historical figure of Joseph Bologne. This Joseph is a metonym of modern racial injustice whose role in all this is to represent a very modern (and important) battle for black and ethnic representations in canon and culture.

This film begins by rushing through Bologne’s formative years and his prodigious talent (here he is impressing the racist head of a musical academy; here he is winning a fencing match against some ethnic purity xenophobes) yet very quickly we’re taken into the salons and boudoirs of eighteenth-century Paris. Bear in mind we have not seen a great deal of Bologne by this point (think Batman without the origin story), yet the script quickly descends into lazy tropes about the celebrated “swordsman”. No sooner had he won his first and only swordfight than Marie Antoinette starts talking about his being proficient with his weapon. (Was that as filthy as it sounds? Oh, forget it. Probably just our dirty minds…)

But then it’s Minnie Driver’s turn as La Guimard, a fading star of the Parisian opera. She comments on how everybody is admiring his “enormous… talent!” (Oh! It wasn’t our imaginations!)

Well, okay, we say. This is all very crass, but this is others talking about him. You could argue that this is a comment on how French society looked upon him through the sexualised gaze. After all, one of the undercurrents of the “Noble Savage” trope so popular in the eighteenth century was about nakedness and latent eroticism…

Except this film isn’t doing anything nearly that clever. It also isn’t the first difficulty we’ve had. Let’s rewind a bit. The movie opens with a much-talked-about scene which didn’t happen in real life: it’s the musical duel between Bologne and Mozart. Chevalier really wants to be Amadeus and, in order to prove Bologne’s greatness, the film must disparage others. It first tries to turn Mozart into Bologne’s Salieri, which it does through the silly conceit of the dual. Bologne takes to the stage to compete with Mozart and he wins after leaping off the stage and into the crowd where he plays a kind of eighteenth-century blues jazzy improv with a just hint of Jimi Hendrix. (Later a character informs Bologne that Mozart was so upset that he’s turning Bologne into the character Monostatos in The Magic Flute… Again, it’s not a fact backed up by a great deal of evidence and historians rather believe that Mozart admired Bologne’s work so much so that he plagiarised parts of it.)

But, okay, let’s draw another line. This is another artistic liberty. Or maybe, artistic liberté would be more apt given what’s coming later. The filmmakers are excited to be telling Bologne’s story. They make some silly points, though always beautifully staged and acted. There’s not an actor in this film who strikes a bad note. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is compelling in the lead, though the standout here is Samara Weaving as Marie-Josephine, who lends fragility to her tragic story. Marton Csokas hams it up a touch with the plummiest of English accents as Marquis De Montalembert, husband to Marie-Josephine. Lastly a word for Minnie Driver who is perfectly evil as La Guimard.

On one level, it’s a highly entertaining popcorn affair if you can turn off your brain. The problem is that the brain has a terrible habit of talking through movies and the brain recognises the abject awfulness of a script.

Because even if this film exhibits higher ambitions, nothing excuses its crass beats. None are quite as crass as the way it attempts to sully Mozart’s name. Let’s just say it: it dumps on his legacy as though this weren’t Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart it was talking about but his lesser talented brother Harry. Was Mozart a racist? Well, it’s unlikely that he wasn’t compared to modern attitudes but we’re getting into some heavy territory. What justification do they show Mozart for mocking the ethnicity of the guy who supposedly proved himself better on the violin? What score is being settled here and on whose behalf? Is Mozart’s reputation only so big because Bologne has been written out of the record?

Once this bit of traducing is done, the film turns on Christoph Willibald Gluck who enters into a competition with Bologne to become head of the Paris Opera. Gluck, according to this history, only wins the contest because Bologne’s greatness is overlooked. Poor Gluck here really is the Antonio Salieri of the film. Bologne praises him by saying his work only sent him to sleep once.

But, okay, more artistic license. But surely there comes a point where you can only draw so many lines…

Yet the film’s greatest sin is perhaps the way it condemns racial stereotypes and then engages in them in cartoonish ways. Nearly every member of French society appears deeply racist (unless they want to sleep with Bologne). And are we meant to believe that Bologne, a supremely talented musician, reconnected with his roots by playing the drums out in the street? And, yes, that is as crude as it sounds. We are meant to believe that to undermine the crass stereotypes around a man who showed profound skill in the music and culture he helped shape and make his own, all he wanted to do was thump some skins with his kinfolk. Because in case this point isn’t made crudely enough, this is the point in the film where we see him stop wearing his wig and his mother starts to work on his cornrows.

You also can’t ignore the egregious decisions made in a film that sets out to restore Bologne’s reputation as a musical genius and repeatedly shoves his compositions aside to indulge us with some sub-Hans Zimmer-style modern orchestrations.

Harder still to ignore how Bologne’s supposed awakening to his true self is done out of simple selfishness. There’s a scene late on in the movie when Bologne calls out Queen Marie Antoinette for not supporting his nomination to become the head of the Paris Opera (we’ve learned earlier that the judges have loved his composition in the competition and he and his friends are already celebrating his victory). Rarely is Marie Antoinette portrayed positively in movies, but this film is generous to her from the start when she awards Bologne the title ‘Chevalier de Saint-Georges’. The Queen seems the fair-minded friend who recognises his talent and is willing to help her Chevalier. She becomes his friend, they gossip about scandals in Paris, and there seems to be almost sexual tension between them. Yet his friendship with the Queen ends when she is forced to admit that her powers as Queen are limited in a country already exhibiting the first signs of revolution. She cannot influence the appointment of the head of the Paris Opera.

In response, Bologne becomes angry and rash (it’s a testament to Kelvin Harrison’s skill that the character doesn’t become so arrogant as to become dislikable). The Queen orders her soldiers to remove him and as they drag him out of the room, we distantly hear Bologne shout about people being hungry in the streets. Only in his moment of abject failure do we hear him say something about revolution.

From that point, the film doesn’t stop going on about “libertie” and does a pretty good job of revising the entire French Revolution to be about Bologne. Let’s completely forget the Enlightenment, Rousseau, and the whole philosophical underpinning of the French Revolution which wasn’t just the first political crisis about cake. Let’s also ignore that the real Chevalier would go on to fight in an all-black unit in the Revolution army. This “history” stops well before that point. Here we glimpse only the start of the uprising when Bologne arranges to give a concert whose proceeds would go to fund the Revolution as if 1789 were an early but successful Kickstarter campaign.

I ask again: do we want our biopics to be mostly factual, largely factual, quite factual, a bit factual, very slightly factual? Because in the case of Chevalier, it’s clear that facts do not matter at all. Instead, we have history providing an outline around which the film embellishes rumours so they can be treated as absolute points of history (that Marie-Josephine bore his child and the De Montalembert had the child murdered), that Mozart was a racist prick, and Gluck a boring musician, and… and… and… only Joseph Bologne deserves credit because, on the limited evidence of what is left of his work, it was – in the words of the film’s compelling trailer – “spectacular… bold!”

It might have been, but this film does a very poor job of convincing us of that.


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