Thursday, June 15, 2023

Chevalier (2022) Review


 Note: This review contains significant spoilers for Chevalier.

One of the early pivotal scenes in Chevalier depicts Joseph Bologne expertly dueling a man in front of the French court as the man's champion reads a tract against the population of black people living in France. The contrast between the man's insistence that the duel will demonstrate the superiority of the white race and Bologne's deft handling of his opponent is viewed with varying looks of admiration and consternation among those watching.

After Bologne wins this volatile duel, Marie Antoinette--who clearly admires him at first sight and rattles off a list of his accomplishments in a research-beforehand-or-you'll-miss-it line of dialogue--impulsively states that she, Marie Antoinette, queen of France, anoints him "chevalier de Saint-Georges." Louis XVI, who has no presence in this film outside of this scene, blandly smiles along with the announcement. 

It is the first of many inaccuracies in the film that go beyond standard historical biographic nitpicking and transcend into inaccuracies with troubling implications for the film's depiction of Joseph Bologne.

Diving into Inaccuracies

Let's be clear: no period film is historically accurate. Even the most meticulous of historically based media is going to contain something that simply isn't true, whether it's a mistake or deliberate choice made out of narrative necessity or lack of budget or impossibility of modern film-making or any myriad of reasons.

I don't care about little inaccuracies in Chevalier. I'm not pressed about the hairstyles for Marie Antoinette usually look more "Jacques Demy 'Lady Oscar'" than authentically mid-1770s French, or even the opera Ernestine being produced earlier and under different circumstances.

What stood out to me is the critically inaccurate way that the film has taken real people and real events, and warped them to fit into a specific thematic narrative that didn't exist.

Referencing back to the early duel scene where Marie Antoinette giddily anoints Joseph Bologne "chevalier" in front of the crowd who has witnessed him best his opponent, much to the chagrin of the man who was championing the inherent inferiority of Bologne just moments before--

In actuality, Joseph Bologne earned the title of chevalier on his own merit in 1766, after he was admitted into and graduated from a royal academy. This was years before Marie Antoinette ever set foot in the country. Bologne did not need the hand-waving, good-natured but impulsive help from the queen of France to be a chevalier. It was something he achieved, on his own merit, which the film deliberately transforms into the whim of a giddy queen.

This scene strips Bologne of the agency he had in this accomplishment and instead gives it to someone else--specifically, a white queen acting on adoring whimsy towards him. A whimsy that will prove, in the film, to break under the slightest pressure.

Taken in context of the film as a whole, the reasoning seems clear: this is an early example of Bologne being pulled along by white society, being led to believe he is an accepted part of it, only to forget--as his father tells him early in the film--that he must be perfect in every way, unlike everyone around him. While he thinks that Marie Antoinette sees him as any other accomplished young man, the film later reveals she will easily cast him aside if it means protecting herself. 

Unfortunately, this type of glossing over the real Bologne's accomplishments and actions in order to suit a specific thematic narrative is emblematic of the film's fictionalized take on the real history behind Joseph Bologne.

The film's inciting event occurs when Marie Antoinette, unable to openly recommend Bologne for the position of Director of the Paris Opera because he is black, comes up with the idea of there being a competition between him and the other front-runner for the position: Christoph Willibald Gluck. 

What we're meant to take away from this scene--when considered with the film as a whole- is that Marie Antoinette, again being impulsive, comes up with a way for Bologne to likely get the position of Director without compromising herself by advocating for him directly. There is the veil of support here: she's trying to get Bologne the position and in the film, genuinely seems to think that this will work and is not doing it to be cruel. But she's also showing her hands as a flimsy ally: she's willing to support him for this position he so desperately wants, but only in a way that doesn't negatively impact her.

In reality, Marie Antoinette supported Bologne's bid for opera Director because she supported his work and career. There was no grand competition, no high stakes composition of "Ernestine" under pressure; Ernestine premiered in Paris on its own merit in 1777, without any need for fictional competitive dramatics. 

in fact, he went to the queen's private apartments more often after the opera scandal to play with her and her companions. Marie Antoinette supported Joseph Bologne's career so extensively in the 1780s--after the "opera scandal" depicted in the film--that his orchestra would often wear their formal uniforms during performances, because the queen was bound to show up.We know that she attended one of his ice skating events in 1789.  

In an interview acknowledging that the events of the film were fictionalized, director Stefani Robinson noted:

"You fast forward to the latter part of his life, and he's taking up arms against her, so clearly something happened within a period where there was this shift, so that speaks to just needing to excavate what was spiritually true, and then render it in terms of storytelling in this more operatic and dramatic way to explain the shift in his psyche." 

Bologne didn't take up arms against Marie Antoinette specifically. I'm not sure why the film and its postscript think that Marie Antoinette was a ruling queen, as the film repeatedly shows things done in Paris "by order of the queen" and the king is literally nonexistent beyond sitting blandly next to her in one scene, but she wasn't. 

Bologne took up arms against foreign armies and royalist French armies in a civil war. He did refuse to join the royalist armies that were attempting to invade France after the execution of Louis XVI in order to save the royal family. But we know that she supported his career in the 1780s and even in 1789. 

It's bizarrely shallow to imply that the reason Bologne didn't support these royalist armies was because he and Marie Antoinette no longer got along. The "shift" happened after the revolution, and does not necessarily indicate that they had some sort of personal falling out. Instead, it indicates that Bologne was willing to put the cordial if not friendly relationship they previously had to the side because of his belief in revolutionary ideals.

Why must there be some literal falling out between them? There is apparently no room for nuance here. You can only support the revolution if you personally hate Marie Antoinette because she wronged you, apparently.

The film puts far too much emphasis on Marie Antoinette overall. She should have been a footnote in this story, because that's all she really was in the end for the real Bologne. She was peripheral to him, not a central actor.

Circling back around to the competition...

Again, it's as if the filmmakers think viewers won't believe that Marie Antoinette didn't have a problem with supporting Bologne openly. But there is a reason, after all, why the women who created the infamous "our dignity will not allow us to submit to the orders of a mulatto" petition addressed it to the queen herself. She was Bologne's most prominent supporter. But in the film, Marie Antoinette has to be sneaky, and support him only under the guise of loving a good competition. 

The outcome of the "competition," where Bologne's opera wins but he is not allowed to assume the position of Director because of the racist petition circulated by the women of the Opera House, is likewise entirely fictional. 

While the racist petition did occur and was the reason why Bologne did not end up assuming the position, there is no evidence to suggest it occurred because of the reasoning in the film: because La Guimard was angry that Bologne rejected her sexual advances on a singular occasion and decided to ruin him because of it.

Gabriel Banat breaks down his theories about the petition in his biography, and theorizes that the primary reason that Guimard likely circulated the petition is that she was keen to retain her internal control over the Paris Opera, and she knew that this would not be possible with Joseph Bologne at the helm. And so she utilized existing racism and fear of black men in white society to get her way and if reports on the Opera a few years later are anything to go by, she was able to retain that internal control thanks to successfully throwing Bologne out of the ring. 

Another accuracy note here: in the film, Gluck is appointed the director of the Paris Opera. In real life, Bologne withdrew his bid for director after it became clear that the racist petition and rumors being spread about him were not going to go away. Louis XVI then seized control and effectively handed the position to the government rather than appoint someone else Director. Some biographers believe the move was done to neutralize the situation while avoiding further humiliation to either his wife, who did not answer the petition, and towards the composer she supported.

Likewise, the film's treatment of Gluck is not only inaccurate but once again, goes directly against what we actually know about Gluck and Bologne's dynamic. The film's Gluck is a stuffy man that Bologne and Marie Antoinette mock together when he shows up to Paris. Gluck is openly hostile towards Bologne, saying, to his face, that he is the "show off who spoiled Mozart's concert." In the film, Gluck is clearly part of the set who think that Bologne has no right to be where he is.

But the real Gluck was working under a 6-work contract with the Paris Opera, and never put in a bid for director of the Paris Opera. Joseph Bologne was actually one of the so-called "Gluckists" who supported Gluck's works in Paris over those of the Italian Niccolò Piccinni, and he attended Gluck's first performance in Paris as a means of showing support. Yet the film wants us to believe that he hated Gluck and the two were bitter rivals.

The film also pretends that Marie Antoinette finds Gluck boring, and he's only in Paris because he wants the Director position. But here again, it's the opposite in real life: the real Marie Antoinette was Gluck's biggest advocate. Not because, as the film later pretends, she has to be due to the racist petition causing Bologne to lose out on the petition and later fall from grace when he openly rails against it, but because she genuinely supported Gluck and his work.

Her support of Gluck is a fairly significant moment in her history as a patron of composers as well, so this isn't some little nitpick but a rewriting of how Marie Antoinette and Bologne and Gluck all worked within the musical world of Paris in the 1770s.

Again and again, I find myself asking: why is the film seemingly afraid to work within even the vaguest of confines of real history? Why not create a fictional composer to compete with Bologne, if the filmmakers were so intent on the silly conceit of a competition? 

Why look at Gluck, whom Bologne and Marie Antoinette both supported, and say: "Yes, we'll make him a stuffy jerk who is openly disdainful of Bologne and both Marie Antoinette and Joseph hate him, actually"? 

 Marie Josephine, Poor Dear?


Another critical inaccuracy is the film turning the figure of Marie-Joséphine de Comarieu de Montalembert into a woman striving to break away from her strict, art-hating husband.

The film portrays her as a stifled, vivacious woman who is trapped in a gilded cage with a man who has a clear disdain for the arts and wants to keep his wife away from the theater and at home where she belongs. She is drawn to Bologne because of his charisma and his interest in music and performance. She auditions (though we all know she is the only woman for the role) for a spot in his opera that is being composed for the competition. He is her opera director but also her lover.

After she gives birth to Saint-Georges' child, her husband tears the child from her arms and kills the newborn boy. The death of this child is the catalyst for Saint-Georges to finally "join the revolution," here depicted as a fishbowl 1789-esque scene (but set in 1776) in which guards are trying to put down protests "by order of the queen!" Because in Chevalier's universe, Louis XVI does not really matter and Marie Antoinette is clearly in charge.

The death of his child is also used to segue into a scene where his mother sorrowfully talks about being separated from him, though as I'll discuss in the next section, this, too, was not represented accurately.

But the reality of Marie-Joséphine, or what we can know of it, was very different.

The real Marie-Joséphine was an actress who regularly performed on a private stage in a theater she and her husband ran together. Her husband, Marc René, marquis de Montalembert (who did have a military and engineering career) was a playwright who owned and ran the theater with her. Whereas the film presents him as a stereotypical boorish military man who says he doesn't understand theater, arts or music, in reality he was a lover of theater and music. 

Marie-Joséphine connected with Bologne because she wanted him to conduct at the theater she and her husband ran. She effectively convinced his current employer to lend him out, and that is how he began to conduct for her and her husband's performances.  So the real Marie-Joséphine was a woman who was essentially "employing" Bologne--a very different power dynamic than the one presented in the film, where she cannot engage in her passion and is stifled by her brute of a husband who hates all things art and theater.

The notion that Bologne and Marie-Joséphine had a child together comes from the gossip journals of Beauvray, who noted "there is even talk of a child born of this illegitimate commerce, that died a short time after his birth of an illness which they could have but did not care to have him cured of, conforming, no doubt, to the views of the putative father who took advantage of that circumstance to rid himself without undue notice of a son he had every reason to believe was not his." 

Another diarist, who does not mention the child, noted that her husband was not a "complacent husband" this affair, had a violent temper, but was at a stale-mate because his wife's alleged lover was a master fencer. So we do have some sort of primary source that suggests the marquis was known to have a bad temper, but that's as far as the reality goes for these characters.

The film's Marie-Joséphine is presented as a poor pretty dear, oppressed by her art-hating husband who won't let her perform, which leads her to lashing out, desperate to find some purchase outside of her gilded cage. She is drawn to Bologne for his musical soul, and she is portrayed in some ways as his muse. Her child is ripped from her arms immediately after birth and murdered, something she regrets, laments, and is horrified by.

The real Marie-Joséphine was performing regularly in a theater her husband owned and wrote plays for, and specifically sought to hire Joseph Bologne for said theater, making her his employer. The only source we have regarding their child suggests that she, along with her husband, did not care to have the alleged child she had with Saint-Georges treated from illness and he died from preventable disease.

Why the change, why the fear of nuance and reality? Why wouldn't the filmmakers want to dive into this uneven dynamic, since it could represent the themes they were trying to work into the film's narrative without totally deviating from history like they did with Marie Antoinette? 

It wouldn't be too hard to extrapolate those themes with the real Marie-Joséphine: She is drawn in by Bologne, decides she must simply have him for her theater, but doesn't care about the consequences that come with said affair. Being his "employer," she is in a position of power of him, as is her husband. And after having his child, she chooses the "easy" route of not fighting to have the child treated, since the social consequences of dealing with an illegitimate black child that her husband clearly didn't want to support would have been disastrous. It's all very "Great Gatsby," if you want to view it through a certain lens. And is much better suited to the narrative themes that the film is trying to present here than what they fictionalized.

Again and again and again, the film takes historical facts and presents them in such distortion that they are in almost every case, the opposite of reality. 

The Nanon Conundrum

Another critical inaccuracy lies at the heart of the film, which is unfortunate, because it's a heart which is movingly and beautifully portrayed by everyone involved--but once it becomes clear that it is complete fiction, it feels hollow.

In the film, Bologne is depicted as being taken away from his mother as a young boy. He does not see her again for more than a decade, and this only occurs because his father, Georges de Bologne, has died and freed Nanon in his will. She arrives in Paris and there is an immediate distance between her and the man that Bologne has become growing up in Parisian society. 

She is regretful that he has lost touch with his heritage, and repeatedly rebukes him for trying to act like a white man at the expense of himself. Bologne, for his part, is dealing with the re-opened wound of being ripped away from his mother at a young age and forced into an isolated life in Paris where he was surrounded by white people whom he had to please in order to exist within their world.

In real life, Bologne's father brought Nanon to Paris less than 2 years after Joseph was brought there as a child, and she was either freed before she was brought to Paris or shortly thereafter, as she could only exist as a resident in Paris if she were no longer enslaved. From what little evidence we have, Bologne's father dealt with difficulties getting Nanon to Paris, and worked tirelessly for Joseph and then later Nanon to live in mainland France. After she was brought to Paris, Nanon lived with Bologne or nearby him for as long as she appears in the records. 

Nanon last appears in the record in 1774, the same year that his father died. Biographer Gabriel Banat believes that Nanon died in 1774 or shortly thereafter, as she doesn't appear in any of Bologne's later financial or residential records and he doesn't believe that Joseph would have simply abandoned her. 

8/19/2023 Edit: The trouble of a lack of new widespread scholarship on Bologne... I recently found out through the work of Pierre Bardin that Nanon/Anne died in 1795. She lived alone, her neighbors thought she had no family, and there is evidence to suggest that Joseph Bologne had attempted to distance himself from her and his heritage during a serious illness in 1778, which led him to believe his mother would die. Bardin's work can be read here. While I don't expect the filmmakers to have known this since I don't think Bardin's work is in any widespread publication, I felt it important to include here, as my previous information about Nanon is outdated.

What does this change achieve? Thematically, it's purpose is clear: in the film, Nanon and the men and women she has brought with her are there to shake Bologne out of his place in Parisian society. She is there to remind him of his heritage and real home. She is there to thematically represent how slavery ripped people from their heritage, culture, homes and families, and planted them elsewhere. And, more distinctly, she is there to represent the importance of reclaiming forcibly lost heritage.

She and her companions repeatedly make fun of him for his European dress and manners, and when he is rejected by Marie Antoinette and the upper echelons of society, she is able to pull him into an isolated courtyard where he sheds his European wig, has his hair braided, and finally embraces the heritage that he had been avoiding because of the necessity of fitting in within white French society.

It is a powerful scene, the culmination of every scene she has with her son, where she tries to both educate and shield him from a fragile status that she knows will crumble as soon as he doesn't stay within the lines painted for him by white French society. 

The problem is... none of this happened. Not in the way the film wants it to have happened, anyway.

Nanon was not kept away from Joseph for a decade. Again, she was brought to him, from what we can tell via records, as soon as was feasibly possible. She lived with or near him until she drops out of historical record. 

Would it have been upsetting for Joseph to be separated from his mother for almost 2 years? Of course. But in reality, the not-quite-2-year gap was filled with Joseph's father working to get Nanon to Paris to be with Joseph. It is a different type of trauma than the one the filmmaker's created in order to fit within a specific theme.

I personally wonder if the filmmakers leaned heavily into Alain Guédé's biography with their fictionalization of Nanon and Joseph's relationship, particularly Nanon repeatedly criticizing Joseph for forgetting his heritage. 

Guédé's biography sometimes reads like historical fiction, as it makes up dialogue, motivations, inner-thoughts, etc, with no primary sources cited. Guédé often cites a narrative fiction book that other biographies deemed to have dialogue that "borders on the ridiculous" when it comes to Nanon, who reminds him repeatedly that he is a black person living in a white world, motivations and dialogue that are heavily present in the film.

It's not as if the filmmakers couldn't draw from the real experiences of Nanon and Joseph in France to illustrate the racism that they both faced.

When Joseph was an adult, the real Nanon and Joseph were forced to register with government officials when an act was passed that required any black people living in France to be register, so that limitations on the amount of black people living within the French mainland. Joseph did not go himself, and sent someone in his place. 

Why? We can only speculate, but here is an incident that works well with the type of fictionalized speculation that must be done in film. This could have easily been extrapolated into a moment when Joseph is forced to remember that, despite the outward appearance of his acceptance into French society, he is still viewed by the government as an inferior outlier. It would even make sense if the film had taken this incident and created something larger out of it.

Instead, we get too much fictionalization that is intended to fit a certain thematic narrative, even if that narrative doesn't match what we know about the real life of Joseph Bologne.

It's Not 1789 Yet

One of the first notes I wrote down for this film, typed quickly into my phone as I sat through the credits, was: "This film desperately wishes it was set in 1789-1793."

The film's bombastic, emotional climatic scene is straight out of 1789. We see massive crowds of people chanting in the streets, burning effigies of Marie Antoinette, chanting "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" This phrase would not be coined for almost 15 years, and that's just about all you need to know in regards to the film's absolutely strange last act.

To preface this finale: throughout the film, Bologne is accosted by the duc d'Orleans, who is for once not played as slimy or underhanded but as a member of the nobility who seems genuinely interested in social change. This is genuinely refreshing, and one of the brighter spots of the film. 

The trouble is, this version of Orleans is about a decade or so too early to appear. He is openly calling for revolution, for liberty, equality, and fraternity, and he asks Joseph to join him in the "revolution."

Notably, he also asks Joseph to join him in assisting the poor people of the city, who are clamoring for bread. Joseph refuses, and in one case, clearly refuses because he'd rather be flirting with his new paramour than focusing on politics.

It is only in the last act that Bologne--rejected from society because he did not quietly accept the racist decision to keep him from the Director position, dealing with the aftermath of knowing that his child has been killed--enthusiastically tells Orleans that he will help "fund the revolution" with him. This film is set in 1776, by the way. While there were individual periods of unrest, typically connected to poor bread harvests or high bread costs, people were not marching in the streets chanting slogans associated with the 1789-onward revolutionary era and demanding the overthrowing of Marie Antoinette.


Bologne and Orleans print revolutionary pamphlets and organize a concert to raise funds for "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" and surround themselves with people who are now openly calling for the overthrow of the monarchy (among other insults, such as the oddly hilarious "She's not MY queen!") while burning straw versions of Marie Antoinette. In 1776. When, in reality, Marie Antoinette would have been experiencing her last years of broad popularity among the general populace, before the negative pamphlets of the court began to bleed heavily into the rest of society.

Towards the very end of the film, Marie Antoinette meets with Bologne before the concert and asks him not to perform. When he resists, she sneers that there will be "no new France," and tells him that one cannot "topple what has been ordained by God," because again, Bologne, Orleans and the mob outside are openly calling for the "rights of man" as if it is 1789 and not 1776. 

He points out that he defended her from attacks, which makes one pause, because he absolutely did not. In fact, the film makes it a point to show is that Bologne didn't even know Marie Antoinette was hated by the public until he was told by someone else. But in the end of the film, we're suddenly told that he ardently defended her from her detractors, because we're supposed to now see Marie Antoinette as a flimsy ally who is being called out for her BS.

But Bologne is never shown actively defending Marie Antoinette, just as Bologne isn't shown caring about the starving people until he no longer benefits from French high society. Yet in both cases, the film gives him lines intended to show him calling out Marie Antoinette, without actually backing up Bologne's stance in either case. 

It makes him look hypocritical and almost silly. All I could think during a scene when he shouts out, "Your people are starving! You're not the queen of France!" is that he didn't care about the starving people until he lost the Director bid and was rejected by Marie Antoinette and the court. His mother even points out earlier in the film, when he buys her a new dress, that the dress could have "fed the whole city." He dismisses her, and says she deserves to look pretty.

The film tries to tell us that Bologne unpeels some unpretty truths about Marie Antoinette (that he defended her but she was unwilling to defend him; that she doesn't care about the starving people but he does) but it forgets to actually set them up.

Back in the scene, Marie Antoinette petulantly says she will strip Bologne of his title and essentially erase him if he performs. He doesn't care. He defiantly performs his concert and Marie Antoinette sends the police in to arrest him. The crowd begins to chant revolutionary slogans and he is released; he walks out of the concert hall, looking defiantly at an aghast Marie Antoinette who is just standing around while people chant 1789-era slogans, and the film ends.

Did I mention that the film is set in 1776? Because it doesn't seem to remember that at all.

It all begs the question here: why not just make the film set in 1789-1795? Why not start the film with Bologne in 1789, enjoying his popularity, and show how he chose, of his own volition, to support the ideals of the revolution?

Clearly the filmmakers were itching to show Bologne join the revolution. But instead of doing so in a plausible manner, they create a fictional version with a timeline that doesn't make sense within the actual historical narrative.

Final Thoughts

There are a few things that I did enjoy about this film.

The film has a beautiful score, though it's woefully insufficient when it comes to utilizing Bologne's actual music. The climactic Sinfonie Liberté is breathtaking, and it almost made me forget how ridiculous the set-up for the final act was in the first place. Almost.

Samara Weaving's character, while heavily fictionalized, was well-acted and I appreciated that they included some parallels between her and Bologne while also pointing out that they still occupied very different places in society. There is a striking scene where she makes blithe remarks about him being unmarried, not thinking about the fact that he was in a position in which marriage was impossible without ruining his social status. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr. delivers an absolute knockout of a performance, and I continually wished that he had been able to play a version of Bologne that was closer to what we know of him. A Bologne who doesn't hand wave away talks of abolitionism and tilting the scales away from the oppression of the poor in ancien regime society because he's too busy enjoying the fruits of aristocracy, but who ardently supports them despite his standing in society which should make him shy away from such things.

But in the end, the film's heavy fictionalizations sends a strange message: it's as if the real Joseph Bologne did not experience what the filmmakers wanted him to experience--in certain ways, at certain times, for certain reasons--so they crafted a fictional version that strips him of his agency and personal beliefs in order to cram him into a desired mold. 

I know that films are never going to be accurate reflections of reality. But I do believe, especially with a figure like Bologne who has not been represented in mainstream films up to this point, that filmmakers have a responsibility towards creating something that doesn't disparage the real historical figure in the process. 

The choices in the film ultimately make his decision to support the revolution an impulsive reaction to humiliating, racist rejection--rather than something he developed on his own while navigating his seemingly impossible social status in a France which was becoming increasingly closed off to anyone who wasn't white, while supporting the abolitionist movement in England to the point of endangering his own life, while being applauded in the court and music halls of France.

Notably, the film allows the white aristocrat--the duc d'Orleans--to support the revolution without being personally used and abused by Marie Antoinette and her court.  But it does not allow this same liberty for Bologne. Instead, he must be humiliated and aggressively put down--his child must be murdered--before the film allows him to actively support the idea of equality and liberty or care about the suffering of the poor.

The real Joseph Bologne joined the revolution because he believed in those ideals, despite benefiting from the society which those ideals rejected. The film's Joseph Bologne joined the revolution because he was aggressively rejected by society, and it is only then that he is willing to care about the world around him.

In the end, I can only wonder: why was the real Joseph Bologne not good enough for this film?


And yet--there is something to be said for the fact that I have to hold up this film to such scrutiny. With historical figures like Marie Antoinette or even more continually maligned figures like Maximilien Robespierre, there are plenty of portrayals to choose from, each with varying levels of historical accuracy, plausibility and even genres.

With Marie Antoinette, there is a YA novel where Marie Antoinette is a vengeful ghost who murders people from beyond the grave and it doesn't really matter that this exists, because if you want something that's  historically plausible or authentic, you can turn to sweeping films like La Revolution Francaise or intimate micro-dramas like L'Autrichienne. Or you can head to the library, the theater, streaming services, for a nearly endless number of historical novels, plays, a musical, and even a ballet or two or three. 

But there are only a handful of other notable film or TV portrayals of Saint-Georges outside of his film. two are documentaries, and one of those portrayals (a small but reoccurring role in the Marie-Antoinette Canal+/BBC series) only premiered in 2022, the same year as the film. 

While Bologne hasn't been widely ignored in the academic musical circle--I refer here to Gabriel Banat's biography, which breaks down the general continual interest in Bologne's work from his death and beyond--he hasn't achieved the same sort of pop culture status as figures as his white contemporaries. What little other media has been made about him is typically limited to French markets and long out of print, such as a spectacle concert held at Versailles in 2004 or a documentary circa 2003 which uses the unfortunate "Black Mozart" moniker. 

The fact that this is the first mainstream film about Joseph Bologne means that this film is where many people are going to pick up their basic knowledge about him. And while it is not a filmmaker's job to teach about history, I believe it should be their job to understand the context in which a film is going to be received by audiences. 

Because this film is the first major motion picture about Bologne, I think much greater care should have been taken into creating a film that accurately reflects who Joseph Bologne was: an incredibly accomplished man who carved himself a seemingly impossible place in French society, and then decided that this personal beliefs and ideals were more important than the adulation of that society, and gave it all up willingly. Rather than someone who didn't care about those ideals and cared only for hedonistic pleasures offered by the ancien regime until said regime reprimanded him for stepping out of line, which suddenly turns him into an ardent revolutionary.

There is an upside to the film, despite my many criticisms of it.

I believe it is due to this film's existence that we are seeing a resurgence in more mainstream works about Joseph Bologne in other media as well. There are several theater and opera productions (old and new) related to Bologne that have been performed or are on the docket for 2022-2024, along with a renewed number of concerts and special performances dedicated to his work.

I hope that one day this film's massive fictionalizations won't matter, because we can turn to other portrayals of Joseph Bologne that are more authentic to the real man.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Review: A Reunion Reading of Soho Rep Production of 'Marie Antoinette' by David Adjmi


When David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette opened at Soho Rep in 2013, it was a minimized departure from the initial productions at the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre. Whereas the show's first incarnations looked like they were plucked from the dreamy "I Want Candy" sequence in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette film, the Soho Rep production pared down the entire set to some chairs, a table or two of macarons, the occasional prop, and an ominous screen with supertitles giving us the wheres and whens of the story.

On the drastic slimming down of Marie Antoinette's stage design for the 2013 Soho Rep production, director Rebecca Taichman had this to say: "I'm fascinated by what less can do and can be, especially when you're doing a play about excess. Now we can get at the core of it--the marrow, not the icing."

This phrase was repeatedly brought to my mind while watching the reunion reading of the Soho Rep production of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette, hosted on Zoom.

For what could be more representative of that marrow than a Zoom meeting? All character, emotion, stage, setting, costume, reduced to a frontal shot from the shoulders up. Minimized to what we can see on individual screens. A wood alcove with a door behind Fersen. A grey screen behind Louis, revealing nothing. The occasional speaker clash from raised voices,  a character name at the bottom of a cropped screen.

This streaming production was directed by Rebecca Taichman, who also directed the 2013 Soho Rep production; the direction works well, keeping characters off-screen until they appear, and allowing the stage directions to remain audio-only made the production seem, on the whole, professional and streamlined.

To be clear to those unfamiliar with the work, Adjmi's Marie Antoinette is not a historical play, despite its use of historical events and people. Attempting to view the play as a representation of the actual historical figures is a fruitless endeavor, and one which makes the play less enjoyable. 

The characters, events, and relationships are so separated from reality that there's often no reconciling them with the historical fact or figure. You will not gain insights about the real Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette, except perhaps one that is already known: that she was a public figure to the extreme degree, with all of the benefits and pitfalls that come with that role.

Instead, history here is an impression, used symbolically and interspersed with familiar events and names that a general audience will recognize, though they are not depicted accurately. The fall of the Bastille, Robespierre, the flight to Varennes, Marie Antoinette herself, are all twisted and used to suit the needs of the narrative. 

image: the only costumes that appear in the production; "farmer" disguises for the ill-fated flight to Varennes

The play was written during the prominence of the “1%/99%” social movement, as well as a significant rise in celeb culture that saw 'social celebs' like the Kardashians take center stage, and its script circles around these themes throughout both Acts: at the pitfalls and vapidness of celebrity culture; at our need to consume and discard people in the spotlight; at the dangerous ignorance that living in a bubble brings; and at the righteous, inevitable backlash from the people who are on the other side of that bubble.

These themes just as true today than they were when the play premiered in 2013. If anything, the swift rise of social media personalities and an increasing focus on the disconnection between the ultra-wealthy and the average person has brought Adjmi's Marie Antoinette--both the play and titular character--even closer to our understanding than before. There's no denying that a meta line about America being a failed experiment feels far more poignant in 2021 than it did in 2013.

While Adjmi's script is at times too repetitive, too flighty or (in Act II) too unbalanced with weighty philosophy that contrasts heavily with the poppier dialogue in Act I, the performances in this reading bring the script and characters to a high level worthy of introspection--and, with the on demand option, rewatching.

In particular, Steven Rattazzi as Louis XVI brings pathos to Adjmi's childlike stereotype of Louis XVI. His most compelling scene is one that is historically ludicrous: in Adjmi's play, Louis XVI visits Paris and is a personal witness to the fall of the Bastille, returning to Versailles with a Phrygian cap on his head. Accuracy aside, it's a fascinating character scene in which the revolution has been placed literally on top of the passive Louis XVI's head, and Rattazzi's unsure reluctance in confronting what exactly this means--and his desire to have someone, anyone, make a decision for him--is fascinating to watch. 

His awkward and subdued Louis XVI is a contrast to Ireland, who snarks and bites and laughs and bustles with the energy that Rattazzi's Louis lacks. His final scene, in which he quietly serenades an infinitely stressed Marie with a song, tears in his eyes, ends with a sad, desperate stare of realization before the entire imprisoned family bursts into painful, stark laughter.

As Joseph II, Karl Miller brings a business-like pomp, glossing over Marie's desire to reminiscence about her childhood and getting straight to the point: when are you going to make an heir? As his second act character Mr. Sauce, Miller portrays an increasingly ominous peasant whose realization that he's talking to the king and queen of France leads to their renewed imprisonment. With a smile that doesn't reach his eyes, it's easy to see why the rest of the characters look as if they wish to back away from the screen in foreboding. 

image: Ireland (Marie) Rattazzi (Louis XVI) and Stack (Fersen). "Actually the public debt has tripled."

Chris Stack plays Adjmi's version of Fersen, whose primary role is to provide a voice of reason and introspection. The dynamic between Ireland and Stack is intriguing, a sort of constructed easiness that allows Ireland's Marie to open up. When he returns at the end of Act II, in the form of a hallucination, there's a sad poignancy and realization in his eyes that gives the scene a unique bittersweet edge that doesn't come through in the script itself.

Will Pullen makes the most out of Adjmi's sometimes clumsy dialogue as "The Revolutionary," a character which represents not so much "the people" as he does a symbolic culmination of the events that caused the revolution itself. He's the anger, the desperation, the burden, the hunger, rolled into a human body that finds little to reconcile with Marie, even when the two finally engage in meaningful discussion.

As the duchesse de Polignac, Ziles embodies a sort of false vanity, putting on airs to match Marie's bubblegum-popping attitude; this wavers when she attempts to engage with Marie on intellectual subjects, before awkwardly realizing that her companion has no idea what she's talking about. The conversation then immediately delves back into a safer subject: fashion. Like Miller's Mr. Sauce, Ziles' Mrs. Sauce plays an increasingly deceptively sweet woman who, with her husband, ensures that the royal family is not able to escape.

By contrast to Polignac, Ikeda's Lamballe (she also returns as an exposition-character, a Royalist) wants to engage with Marie on a more real level, offering shrugging advice and reluctantly informing her about some of the nastier rumors going around. She has a warm presence, almost subdued in her attempts to convince Marie to think a bit harder, until bubbling tensions towards the end bring out her frustration.

Kat Elizabeth Williams joined the cast as the Dauphin, or Louis Charles. Williams does well showing the uneasy reaction of a child exposed to larger events outside of their control--the frustration of an annoyed mother who doesn't have time to deal with them, the wariness of frightening strangers, and child-like fear at hearing about a world turned upside down.

Then there is... The Sheep. A symbolic, strange character played here, as in the 2013 Soho Rep production, by David Greenspan. The sheep is not real. The sheep is creepy. The sheep warns Marie about the future and demands to be pet while invading her personal space. While the character itself feels unnecessary--particularly given that the territory Adjmi covers with the Sheep is already covered by the Revolutionary--Greenspan embodies the sheep with an underlying menace that pays off in the end. 

And of course, there is Marie herself.

Marie (Ireland), Lamballe (Ikeda) and Polignac (Ziles).

Marin Ireland's Marie Antoinette is a marvel to behold. Frenetic, anguished, flippant, despairing, callous, genuine, bursting at the seams of a video square.

Ireland’s performance brims with teetering layers that are peeled away as the show goes on, starting with a frosted pink top of pompous celeb silliness and ending with something pathetic, trapped underneath glass, aching to get out. What exactly that “something” is, neither the audience--nor Marie--truly knows. Nor does she ever really find out.

Some of the more revealing moments of Marie’s gilded-cage come from nostalgia for her childhood at Schönbrunn, a Von-Trapp like existence that she describes as "playing in the mountains, singing songs.” She longs to hear news of her childhood governess. She asks her elder brother if he remembers playing outdoors.

Yet when her childlike longing begins to reveal something more serious underneath, it’s immediately dismissed and not dwelled upon. How could it be, when more important things--like having an heir, like dealing with the revolution--are at stake?

Ireland's blithe like-so-ums in Act I are interspersed with bursts of thoughtfulness, revelations of despair and something like intelligence inside her, only to be plastered over again with the need for distraction, the need to ignore anything serious.

With Ireland, this lack of seriousness projects a shield-like protectiveness. Marie’s frantic revelation to Fersen that she was accosted at the Assembly by a man clad in black, who told her that what she’s now experiencing is nothing, and all this is but a “preamble to your suffering,” is reflected on in a moment of horror before Ireland slaps on a smile, offering Fersen chocolate. 

"I've been having nightmares." A late Act I revelation with Marie and Fersen.

As Act I goes on, however, it becomes impossible for her to continue in ignorance. And by Act II, Marie is forced to shift gears, trading macarons for poorly thought out escape plans and ciphers.

Adjmi’s script is often quick, quipping, biting or sarcastic or otherwise short. At times, it becomes too repetitive, circling around the same themes without offering anything additional to the audience.

Towards the end of Act II, however, the scenes get longer and more introspective, finally avoiding the glossy cover-ups from Act I to confront the revolution (and the philosophical arguments contained within) for better or worse. 

While Act II contains the bulk of the fantastic character scenes in which this cast truly shined, it also tends to drag under the weight of mishmash historical events and increasingly philosophical dialogue that sometimes feels too hamfisted to be successful. I think the script actually benefited from the reading-style production in this respect; dialogue that felt too heavy or when spoken on stage seems to flow better when all we have is an intimate shoulders-up view.

The final scenes of Marie Antoinette in prison with only another character (a Revolutionary, a Sheep, and a dream sequence Fersen, in that order) are the most cerebral and contain some of Adjmi's best dialogue. 

Solitude in prison makes Marie chatty, thoughtful, desperate. Ireland plays off well against Pullen's fervent Revolutionary, Greenspan's bizarre and eventually nightmarish sheep, and Stack's deceptively pitying dream!Fersen/Executioner. 

It's in these final scenes that the play's call to action hits home.

Does it matter that Marie longs nostalgically for the whimsical version of her childhood home? Does it matter that she was neglected by her mother and married off at 14? Does it matter that Marie feels trapped, pressured, caged in by the world that has made her?

In one of the play's last scenes, in which the Revolutionary is cutting her hair in preparation for her execution, he tells the now captive former queen, who is complaining about lice and scissor cuts on her scalp: 

"Poor thing. You act like everything's hurt you and everyone's used you and you're just some sweet sunburnt girl at the beach. You won't look at reality." 

The line is both a metaphor for Marie's obliviousness throughout the play (she complains about a gilded cage, while others tell her people are starving) and a meta take on the Marie Antoinette mythos itself, where the titular queen is often painted in pastel colors while the political realities underneath are ignored or glossed over.

"I wasn't raised," Marie desperately tells the Revolutionary towards the end of the play in a bid to make him understand her, as much as it is an last-ditch attempt to understand herself--and as much as it is directed towards the audience, letting us know that Marie is not a fully realized being. 

"I was built." 

Marie Antoinette is available on demand through August 9th.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Mistaken Portraits of Sophie Hélène Béatrix de France [Updated June 2023]

A pastel portrait of the child of Louise Hyacinthe de Montesquiou and Anne-François V de Lastic by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1780-1783.  In the collection of the Chateau de Parentignat.

Note: This post has been updated as of June 2023

This charming pastel portrait has long been identified as Sophie Hélène Béatrix, the second daughter and last child born to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.  This identification was first made in a Vigee-Lebrun exhibition catalog published in the 1980s by Joseph Baillio, an expert whose specialty is the work of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Baillio also identified another Vigee-Lebrun work, a sketch, as depicting the infant Sophie in this same publication.  

“Sleeping Baby” by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1780s. According to Joseph Baillio, this may be a sketch of Eugène de Montesquiou-Fézensac, whom the artist also depicted in a pastel.     

However, after decades of being known as portraits of Sophie Hélène Béatrix, the real identity of the children in the above portraits has become clarified: neither child is Sophie de France.

According to the chateau de Parentignat website, the archives of the Montesquiou-Lastic family indicate that the pastel portrait depicts the first child born to Louise Hyacinthe de Montesquiou and Anne-François V de Lastic.

The couple had three children: Amédée, François and Octavie. Only Octavie (Gertrude Charlotte Marie Octavie) would live past childhood; she was a dame d'honneur to Empress Josephine and had several children of her own.

If it does indeed depict their first child, then the infant in the above portrait would be Amédée. There are conflicting reports regarding his birth and death date; indicates that he was born in 1782 and died in 1788; according to Baillo, he was born in 1780 and died in 1788. Various books reporting on the genealogy of the Lastic family give differing information: one indicates that Amédée  merely “died young,” and another says “died in infancy.”

The above pastel portrait is remarkably similar to another infant portrait by Vigee-Lebrun, done for the Montesquiou-Fézensac family. This portrait depicts Eugène de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1782-1810).

Image: Portrait of Eugène de Montesquiou-Fézensac by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1782-1783.

Perhaps both portraits were painted around the same time; or perhaps they requested the artist to paint them in a complementary style. Regardless of whether the "not-Sophie" misidentified portrait is Amédée, François or Octavie, the children in both pastel portraits were cousins. 

Image: Eugène de Montesquiou Fezensac, at the age of five months, asleep on a cushion by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1783.

The above image is actually featured on the Wikipedia page for Sophie,  and has been shared online interchangeably as either Sophie or an infant Louis Charles. However, like the other portrait, it is depicting someone else entirely: in this case, an infant Eugène de Montesquiou Fezensac

With three of the previous “Sophie” portraits now given the correct identifications, we are left with precious little tangible portraiture of Sophie.

The only absolutely confirmed contemporary depiction of Sophie comes from a series of engravings of the royal family, something @tiny-librarian​ discovered and shared. Unfortunately, the image itself is rather small--but it does at least indicate that there was some contemporary portraiture of her, and perhaps a larger version will one day make an appearance.


Image: a contemporary illustration of Sophie; from an engraving featuring portraits of the French royal family.

There is also an alleged portrait of all four of Marie Antoinette’s children, attributed to Jean Pierre Chasselat. However, in 2023, this miniature resufurfaced with a new identification and even a new artist: the work has been re-identified as a portrait of the children with Madame Leclerc, along with the son of Bernard, by Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Augustin. It does not depict the children of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and thus, the infant depicted here is not Madame Sophie.


Image: An alleged portrait of the royal children by Jean Pierre Chasselat,

We may have another faint glimpse of Sophie in this alleged allegorical portrait of Marie Antoinette looking at her children, attributed to Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty.


Looking closely at the profiles, one can see the faintest outline in the front. Was this meant to represent Madame Sophie? But there is a catch here: Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty died in 1786, before the death of Madame Sophie. 

The work does look incomplete, is it possible that the artist died before it was completed, thus leaving Sophie vague and unfinished? 

If this is indeed an allegorical portrait of Marie Antoinette done by Gautier-Dagoty, it is the only practical explanation. But as we’ve seen, there are quite a few portraits of the queen formerly attributed to Gautier-Dagoty which have been later attributed to someone else, so it is possible that it is not his work after all.

Truly, the title of the chapter focusing on Sophie in Philippe Delorme’s Les Princes du Malheur is more apt than ever:

L'éphémère Madame Sophie. The ephemeral Madame Sophie.