Chevalier Movie Recommendation and Historical Deep Dive

Chevalier Movie Recommendation and Historical Deep Dive
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Chevalier Movie Recommendation and Historical Deep Dive. I’m late to the Chevalier party. But I unreservedly recommend the movie Chevalier. It was a really fun ride, and amazing story about an underappreciated historical character. I really had no idea that this guy even existed. Personally, I’ve always been an enormous classical music and opera fan. Spent large swaths of my disposable income, prior to my even being able to drive, to go to the opera and to classical concerts. Hell, art museums, poetry readings, philosophical debates, Shakespearean plays?? Yeah, I was there. Truth be told, I think I had hoped to become something of a “man of the arts.” I know, sooooooper lame. It is what it is. Come to think of it – I think I wanted to live the life of this fellow – Joseph Bologne. Wait, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There is a movie – entitled Chevalier – that is all about a son of a plantation owner and slave mother who vaulted into the center of the French Royal Court, became close friends with Marie Antoinette and who was seen as one of the best composers in the world… ever. Wait, hold on. What are you saying? I’m saying that Joseph Bologne, the son of a slave, was considered as good a composer as Mozart. Better yet, he was a world class fencer, horse rider, dancer, swimmer… like, the guy was amazing. During his time in Paris, slavery was abolished (the first time) and he seemed on the verge of running the Paris Opera. No offense to liberals today – but that would be news today… let alone 250 years ago. This guy was off the chain. So, no wonder there was a movie finally made about him. The only glitch? When Napoleon came to power, slavery was reinstated and the history of Joseph Bologne in Paris was actively dismantled and swept under the rug. Which, makes figuring out his life a little difficult.

After watching the movie – I spent time reading through the book, The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow, and really enjoyed learning about what we know, and don’t know, about this fascinating individual.

Quick Chevalier Overview

Joseph Bologne is established in the movie early on as a musical virtuoso. So much so, he makes it clear that he wants to take over as the director of the Paris Opera. As Marie Antoinette’s music teacher, and Paris Court attendant, it was pretty clear that he had the chops to pull it off both musically and also politically. And so the Queen establishes a competition between Christoph Willibald Gluck and himself. They will write an Opera, and whichever one writes the better opera? They’ll run the shop. Simple.

Along the way, Joseph decides he wants Stéphanie Félicité – Comtesse de Genlis – as his lead for his opera. Only glitch? Her husband was a troglodyte who thought all women on the stage were whores. But, while he was away blowing things up in the military, she decides she’ll participate anyway. The two have an affair and also put on an amazing Opera that was the talk of the town.

Only problem – Marie Antoinette tells Joseph that there is no way that he will ever become the director of the Paris Opera. Why? Because no one at the Opera will ever work for a black man… no matter how amazing his musical skills were. The Queen doesn’t defend him, and doesn’t speak on his behalf… she’s too at risk at the current time (You do realize that she’s beheaded by the Revolution, right?) and can’t afford more political intrigue.

Next, he learns that Stéphanie Félicité is pregnant, and she doesn’t know whose child it is. She has the child, it’s skin is dark, and Marc-René – Stéphanie’s husband – takes the child away and murders him. Joseph later decides he will put on a performance and all the money will go towards the Revolution. The Queen is insulted, and tells Marc-René to shut it down. He does, at gunpoint… and the movie ends with Chevalier striding out into the chaotic streets on the verge of Revolution.

Thoughts on Chevalier

The movie is a ton of fun. This guy is just amazing. I just couldn’t believe how any of this could be real. The story is so freaking progressive! And it was set 250 years ago!! Just unbelievable. And it is clear that while a lot of this movie is fiction, the roots of the movie are true. But which parts are true? And which parts are false? Those thoughts were circling around in my head almost the moment it started.

The Historically Inaccurate Details:

  1. The opening violin duel –  It is believed by historians that Bologne’s music influenced Mozart’s, though there is a clear separation between their musical style. They would have known of each other’s music, and Bologne would not have caused such a public spectacle.
  2. There’s no way to know about a child – the movie conjectures that Bologne and Marie-Josephone de Montalembert had a child together that was murdered by her husband, Marc René. The newspapers of the day did fixate on Bologne, and they wondered about his relationship with Marie-Josephone. But we cannot know if it was anything more than idle conjecture. In a book published in 1840, the author, Gabriel Banat, suggested the two did have a child together. But think about it a moment and you’ll realize that there could be no way that a detail like that would have survived in the history books.
  3. Bologne grew up in Paris with his parents – The movie posits that Bologne grew up a solitary life and had to figure out Paris on his own. However, Nanon – his mother, and also Georges, Bologne’s father, lived with their son in Paris. Nanon actually joined her son when he was nine.
  4. The Ending at Gun Point – Joseph Bologne definitely was an abolitionist, but it’s pretty clear he never conducted concerts to fund the revolution. (Slavery was temporarily abolished prior to Napoleon’s arrival.) More importantly the entire ending of the film was a known fiction. Regardless, this Hollywood adaptation required some sort of meeting between Marc René and Bologne. But no, this gunpoint ending never happened.
  5. Paris Opera Competition – it is true that Bologne was considered for the directorship of the Paris Opera in 1776. But this idea of a competition definitely never happened. It was a year later, 1777, that Bologne composed his opera Ernestine. Oh, and the whirling dervish that was the revolution didn’t really kick off until 1789. The film definitely pancaked a pile of history for the convenience of the narrative.

The Historically Accurate Details:

  1. Bologne really was brilliant – John Adams’ diary even notes in a diary entry of 1779, that Bologne truly was “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, musick.”
  2. Bologne and Marie Antoinette were close – One detail the movie actually downplayed? The Queen and Bologne’s relationship. Prior to the chaos of Bologne’s candidacy for the director at the Paris Opera, Bologne really was Antoinette’s music teacher. And the duo became so close, that the Queen fired him because they became the center of gossip among the royal court. Maybe the movie buried the lede??
  3. Bologne and Mozart probably were connected – yes, the initial violin duel was fictional, but in 1778, it is believed that Bologne and Mozart lived together at the residence of Madame de Montesson. Mozart’s mother – Anna Maria – had just passed away, and Bologne had just ascended to the music director of Montesson’s private theater. So it is understood that the two composers would have most likely had known each other.
  4. Thwarted Love – It is true that Bologne’s getting shut down for the Paris Opera conductor was as much about his skin tone as it was about his rejecting Marie-Madeleine Guimard romantically. She was livid at his refusal, and carried the grudge, so much so that it is thought she actively assisted in shutting him down for the role. Marie-Madeleine was actually a ballerina, and held no small sway among the Royal Court.

Final Thoughts on Chevalier

Man, I despise Napoleon. I hated the recent movie, solely because I wanted the historical figure to die a really painful death. Man, I despised this guy. Worse, now that I know that Napoleon re-instituted slavery, and he expunged the history about this obviously amazing man… why? Why would he do that? Because it was contra-evidence about the institution of slavery. How can you enslave humans that are capable of amazing works of art? You can’t, you can only enslave non-humans. And Joseph Bologne’s abilities? Prove, in detail, that blacks are human. I mean, obviously. But 250 years ago, people would argue that slaves were not human, they were animals. And it’s heartbreaking. And Napoleon perpetuated this lie by wiping the history of this man clean… or nearly.

So, while much of this movie is false… I forgive the screenplay writer and director (Stephen Williams and Stefani Robinson) for any fictions that they create here. Why? Because the man is actually larger than any fiction that we could create today. Bologne was an inspiration. He should be an inspiration to everyone. But obviously, most importantly, to African Americans. And I just want to be a part of sharing this amazing man’s life and story… not squelching it.