Joseph de Bologne Saint-Georges, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was an extraordinary man by any definition, and in many ways. He cut a swath through high society in Paris of the late 18th century by reason of his virtuosic talents as a violinist, swordsman, poet, and composer.
He’s brought to life by a charismatic and compelling performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Elvis) in Canadian director Stephen Williams’ new movie, which got its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
— Searchlight Pictures (@searchlightpics) September 11, 2022
Joseph survived as a biracial Black man in a century when slavery was routine, son of a Black woman owned as a slave by his father, George de Bologne Saint-Georges. George was a former Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber, and he did, while matter of fact about his son’s bastard status, recognize his talents. A scene in the movie shows him unceremoniously dropping young Joseph off at a boarding school in Paris, the administrators openly hostile to the idea at first, to pursue the violin.
Harrison Jr. embodies the complex motivations that must have gone into such a person, driven to excel as a means of virtually forcing his way into a Parisian society that, at best, didn’t know quite what to do with him, and at its worst, was glaringly racist. No matter how far he could go, and what he could achieve, race would always be a trump card that could be — and was — pulled against him at any given turn.
Without giving away the story, the wording of the note from opera singers Sophie Arnould and Rosalie Levasseur that is read to Joseph in the film, the one that nixed his chances for leading the Royal Academy of Music at the Opéra as its artistic director, is historical fact. Joseph’s reaction, and the singers who wrote the note in the film are moviemaking fiction, but entirely believable in context. Equally convincing is his journey to a realization he would never be able to truly be free in the Parisian court.
The Chevalier’s story is ably rounded out by a solid supporting cast, notably Minnie Driver as the delightfully scheming opera star Marie-Madeleine Guimard, and Lucy Boynton, who ably conveys a combination of arrogance and horrified vulnerability in the role of Queen Marie Antoinette, not long before the crowds flooded the palace to behead her. Samara Weaving adds depth to the role of opera singer Marie-Josephine. Joseph’s mother, played by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, provides the emotional backdrop for Bologne’s journey. It’s an effective device in the story, made real by her warm portrayal of a calming presence in his life.
Sumptuous period costumes and interiors create a realistic recreation of pre-Revolutionary France.
History vs Hollywood
The movie does add details and embellishments to the known facts of his story, notably a toxic love triangle that puts Joseph’s situation into vivid focus. Still, it stays true to the facts about him as preserved to this day.
George Bologne, Joseph’s father, did own sugar and coffee plantations at Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe. It is believed that Joseph was conceived while George was in exile on a murder charge (later pardoned) in Haiti.
In reality, little is known about the background of Joseph’s mother, believed to be 16-year-old Senegalese girl at the time of his birth. George renamed her Nanon, and brought her and Joseph with him when he and his legal wife returned to France from Guadaloupe after his exile was revoked. Historical records preserve comments from family visitors who write about Nanon’s beauty. Many of Joseph’s teachers at his various pursuits noted his talent, his physical prowess, and not only his strength but his grace in fencing.
It’s true that he was granted his title — a Gendarme du roi and Chevalier, absolutely crucial to his acceptance in Parisian society — by the powers that be. However, as posted in the credits of the film, Joseph was also the first colonel to lead France’s first all-Black regiment in the revolutionary army in Guadeloupe. It’s believed that he’d come into contact with revolutionary politics and figures on his many trips to England to compete as a swordsman, and openly declared his support for the Revolution.
Another credits note solves the issue of why Bologne and his work were so entirely forgotten after his death at age 54. When Napoleon Bonaparte took power, and three years after Bologne’s death in 1799, he reinstated legal slavery, and had Bologne’s music banned. Much of it, including his opera, was destroyed.
Other films will explore Bologne’s musical inspirations, practice and legacy more closely. For now, establishing this remarkable personage in the popular zeitgeist is enough.
Vive le Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Chevalier (Searchlight Films); Director Stephen Williams; Screenplay Stefani Robinson. Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adekolujoe, Marton Csokas, Alex Fitzalan, Minnie Driver.
One more TIFF screening Sept. 16 here. To be released in movie theatres soon.
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