TIFF 2022: “Chevalier”
Merging fact with fiction, French-Caribbean musician Joseph Bologne, who adopted the name Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is the subject of the biopic Chevalier, and is portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the titular role.
Set in pre-revolution Paris, not the best time for a half-Black, illegitimate son of a wealthy plantation owner and an enslaved black woman, Chevalier is endowed with unparalleled musical talent, athletic skills, and a quick wit. He rises well above his rank to the extent that he can call Queen Marie Antoinette his friend, though ultimately his fate is cast by an intolerant society that cannot see past the color of his skin. Tragically, much of Chevalier’s work was destroyed when slavery was reinstated in France in 1802, though the great musician is now recognized as the first classical composer of African descent.
After the screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian director Stephen Williams assembled some of the actors for a Q&A, including Minnie Driver, who plays La Guimard, a prickly woman who causes trouble for Chevalier; Samara Weaving who plays Marie-Josephine, an unhappily married noblewoman with whom Chevalier falls in love; and Lucy Boynton, who plays Queen Marie Antoinette.
Williams talks about how the film came about. “I read about Joseph Bologne when I was in high school. My mom gave me a book that mentioned him, and I was captivated right away. He had such a fascinating life,” he says, enthusiastically. “And the more that I read about him, the more I was drawn to him and his story. I was really shocked that not a lot of people know who this person was and his cultural impact – not only on music but [on the world at large] just by being a really important political figure.”
Casting the lead actor was one of the challenges that Williams faced, and getting it right was essential to the success of the film. “We needed someone who would do the traditional work of an actor but also had [the ability] to portray a virtuoso violinist. Everything you see in that movie is Kelvin. We needed someone who was ready to go that extra mile.”
And he did. In spades. Harrison Jr, who most recently played B.B. King in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic offered, “It was hard. I finally can breathe now.” While Harrison had his work cut out for him, he is not unfamiliar with that world. “My dad’s a classical music teacher and he taught at university. And so I remember growing up seeing him teach these kids. He’d be like, ‘It takes six months to teach them a concerto.’ So, when I told him, ‘Now y’all don’t lose your mind but y’all think I’m going to be able to play this?’” he recalls, laughing. “My dad was like, ‘All right, get to the shed.’ So, we went to the back house. We were sitting there for five hours a day, long bow strokes. Getting it together. It was almost six months-plus during shooting and nonstop lessons just to get it together. And let me tell you something, when that movie was over, that violin never saw me again!”
To Boynton’s credit, while the role of Marie Antoinette is well documented, she brings a fresh element to the role. “There’s such an extensive amount of information out there about Marie Antoinette. A lot of it is delivered through quite a myopic channel. It reminds us that history has an author and a very specific voice of that author. And so it was a great experience to try to put that all away and dispose of my preexisting ideas about her and start from scratch,” she says. “But it’s very much Chevalier’s story. She was just a useful tool with which to tell the story.”