TIFF 2022: Chevalier, by David Bax
My only fear, when it comes time for people to get a chance to see Stephen Williams‘ exuberant, electrifying Chevalier (the first thing he’s directed that wasn’t meant for television in 25 years), is that they will be given cause to misinterpret what makes the movie so great. I don’t want to downplay the importance of the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Black composer, conductor and violinist who was a member of the court of Marie Antoinette. But I would also hate for importance to seem like the only given reason to see a movie that is as lively, fun, thrilling and pleasing to the eye as this one.
Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson (whose background is in cool kid comedy TV like Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows; it shows) focus less on the rise and fall story of Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in the estimation of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and the French aristocracy at large than on the romance between him and a woman named Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), the wife of a nobleman (Marton Csokas) and an aspiring singer whom Bologne casts as the lead in his opera. It’s a passionate love story played by two terrific, charismatic actors but ultimately a heartbreaking one. Chevalier is not going to insult us by falling back on “love conquers all” platitudes.
But before we even get to the duel of the hearts, we get one on violins. It’s a brash, arch opening gambit for the film, not unlike the one employed by last year’s Cyrano (which also featured Harrison), the kind of thing that’s only going to work if it’s cool. Don’t worry. Like the rest of the movie, that’s exactly what it is.
Chevalier‘s screenplay walks right up to the edge of being too self-conscious. But Williams, Robinson and this impeccable cast keep the tone right on the tightrope. Anachronisms like, “Who the fuck is that?” could be overbearing in the hands of filmmakers who want to hang a lantern on them and be appreciated for their cleverness. But, with the considerable help of editor John Axelrad (a longtime collaborator of James Gray), the film never stops long enough to wink or self-congratulate.
One more crucial ingredient to the film’s success. You simply can’t have a cool movie if the people on screen don’t look the part. The costume design (by Oliver Garcia) and tailoring aim not just for historical verisimilitude (I’m no expert there) but for making everyone look great in these clothes, visually elevating them to the societal positions they either hold or aspire to. Chevalier is a visual treat as well as a narrative and auditory one.