Chevalier Shines an Elementary Light on a Nearly Forgotten Master: TIFF Review

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Pitch: You have heard of Mozart, Beethoven, and countless other European composers that helped shape music as we know it. However, it’s likely that you have never heard of Joseph Bologne, known professionally as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose work was largely destroyed when slavery was reinstated throughout France in 1802. It is an absolute shame, but thankfully, what has been preserved has been rediscovered over the years, establishing him as the first Black composer of the classical eras.

Now, his story, or at least some of it, has been adapted for the screen thanks to director Stephen Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson. Chevalier shows Bologne, played by Luce breakout Kelvin Harrison Jr., as he navigates pre-revolution Paris as a revered composer and the half-Black son of a slave master. Able to climb through the ranks of society due to his musical and academic skills, he finds himself extremely close to stardom, only for it all to come tumbling down. Chevalier melds fiction and reality in this exploration of class, identity, and tokenism.

No Reinvention of the Wheel: If you have seen any other musician biopic of the last few years, you probably know the formula that Chevalier follows. It starts with his beginnings, being sent to a prestigious school away from his enslaved mother (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo). Obviously, he proves himself to be a star pupil, excelling in music and language.

Later, he becomes a notable figure, schmoozing among notable figures of the time like Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who appoints him as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. However, after a star-crossed encounter with the secretive opera singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) and an opera-writing contest, Bologne’s life drastically changes. Amidst an identity crisis, he finds meaning once again in an important political event.

It’s a typical rinse-and-wash narrative, a formula that hasn’t been altered much in recent years. Because of this, Chevalier is extremely predictable – even if you have never heard of Bologne’s work before, you will know exactly how his story plays out, which is a bit of a shame. Then again, considering the obscurity in in which he still remains, it’s understandable that only the most basic version of his story gets adapted in a motion picture. It is also fair, though, to be a bit underwhelmed, despite the strong pacing of Williams’ directing.