See the rise of a legend in “Chevalier” 

Published 12:04 pm Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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Boldly taking the stage this week at Tryon Theatre is “Chevalier,” a beautifully composed period piece set amongst the tumultuous society of late 1700s France as it hung on the edge of revolution. 

The titular character at the center of this story is Joseph Bologne, later knighted Chevalier de Saint Georges, who was born the son of a slave mother and a planter father in the French colony of Guadeloupe. Joseph is artfully brought to life by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who brings a laudable intensity and defiance to the character. The film is an intimate study of Joseph, as his life takes him from humble beginnings of illegitimacy to the noble court of Marie Antoinette, securing his place in history. 

At the age of seven, Joseph displayed a prodigal talent for the violin, among other academic and athletic successes. Quickly after his talent was recognized, Joseph was taken to Paris for his formal education and ushered into an echelon of privilege almost unheard of for a man of his birth. However, young Joseph would not embrace this privilege without internalizing a harsh truth: that for him to have any acceptance amongst his new peers, he would have to not only earn his place but excel. He had to prove he belonged, perpetually, and obsessively, striving for superiority as the only way to counter his socially imposed inferiority. 

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The bulk of the film depicts Joseph’s adult years, as his dedication and skill defined a path for him through two main veins: fencing and music. Joseph showcased exceptional talent in fencing, unseating the then champion at age 15, and being appointed “gendarme de la garde” by King Louis XVI. This appointment also earned him his title of chevalier (the French equivalent of a knight) as he assumed his father’s surname of Saint Georges, despite the illegitimacy of his birth. 

While the ascension to knighthood was remarkable for a man of St. Georges’ race, this and his talent with the sword were not the only factors that would secure his name in history. His gift for composure and playing of the violin would also propel him to fame and prestige, the social spoils of which were richly enjoyed by St. Georges. However, St. Georges’ fame and talent would earn him as many enemies as it did admirers. 

The fomenting socio-political upheaval that underwrote so much of St. Georges’ life would soon embroil France in revolution, one that would intend to upend the entire system in which St. Georges has succeeded, but also suffered. 

Being present with the main character as he climbs the ladder of society is inspiring. But the painful emotional navigation of this society that opposed St. Georges at every turn proves an ever greater challenge and provides for an engrossing experience as a viewer. You will applaud and cry for Chevalier St. Georges as he comes to life out of history in “Chevalier.”