Chances are you’ve never heard of Joseph Bologne, better known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. We promise you this, though, if you go and see the movie based on his life, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr and Lucy Boynton, you’ll want to know more.
Chevalier tells the story of Joseph Bologne (Harrison Jr), the titular Cheavlier, a French-Caribbean musician who manages to find a place in Parisian high society thanks to the patronage of Marie Antoinette (Boynton). However, when the Chevalier steps out of line, he finds his friends at court surprisingly fair-weather.
A fascinating portrait of a man history seemingly deliberately tried to forget, Chevalier is one of the best drama movies we’ve seen this year and a powerful exploration of racism, class, and privilege. We were lucky enough to sit down with the actor who plays Marie Antoinette, Lucy Boynton, herself (there was sadly no cake) to chat a little about this incredible film. Warning: minor spoilers ahead for one of our favorite new movies.
The Digital Fix: Hello, Lucy. We have a lot to talk about and not a lot of time, so let’s start at the beginning. Can you remember how you felt when you first read the script?
Lucy Boynton: I was really taken aback by the tone and pace of it. I think, just because of this era and the gravity of the story that I knew they were telling, I anticipated something very different and something much heavier. But it was just so fast-paced, witty, and electric. I think it’s such a powerful way of kind of ‘Trojan horse-ing,’ a really important and impactful message. So it was a real thrill.
How aware of Joseph Bologne were you before you signed on to the film?
Not aware at all. I thought that I had never heard of him before. It turns out I just hadn’t heard his name before. I had read about him, but he was referred to as ‘Black Mozart.’
So that was a kind of catalyst for the conversation between Steven and me of acknowledging how many people must have been erased from the history books by having their accomplishments and identity attributed to their white or male counterparts.
It’s obviously happened to a lot of women historically as well. So I think that was another catalyst that made me and continues to make me so proud to be a part of this film because I think it does act as a reminder to kind of read outside of the curriculum. Let’s find these stories that have been neglected in mainstream history books.
Marie Antoinette is a very well-documented figure in those mainstream history books and cinema. How did you go about finding new sides to a character who we think we all know?
I think it’s exactly that, that we have this very strong preconceived idea of her. We think we’re certain and straight in our facts, and yet so much of that is hinged on a quote that is wrongly attributed to her. So I think I started it by departing from all of those preconceived ideas and starting from scratch.
It helped me to be much more open-minded about understanding the context for this person, and it helps you understand why they operate the way that they do, and especially in the context of our film, why she might choose those actions specifically.
I think because there are so many iterations of her, I felt safer in being a little bit pickier about the elements that I did choose to bring into this character, and I felt safe depicting a narrow stream of her life and a moment in her life knowing that we kind of investigate her elsewhere.
Marie seems actually quite progressive when we’re first introduced to her. She seems to genuinely enjoy Joseph’s company. Do you think Joseph is ultimately a novelty to Marie, or do you think she has a real affection for him?
I think it’s such an interesting question because it is an amalgamation of both. I think, undoubtedly, and undeniably, he was such a fascinating and magnetic person. He is so successful, skilled, and talented in every department that he chooses to pursue.
It was very unique to be that kind of established and elevated in so many different areas. I mean, he was used in a book about fencing as an example of the perfect fencing form and was obviously a virtuoso in the music world.
So I think she was earnestly drawn to him. However, I do think there is, you know, a strategic side to that way. Therefore, she wants to be seen around him and have him around to kind of elevate her status.
I think that shows how earnestly she believed in his beliefs. But I think that was, yeah, some self-serving elements to it. And kind of a trend, slightly transactional, which, therefore, kind of segues into why she’s able to be as cutthroat as she is later on.
Why do you think, in the end, she doesn’t stick up for the Chevalier? She promises to be his patron, and ultimately, she fails. Why do you feel that she didn’t keep her promise despite her vast degree of authority?
Fear. I think the walls are closing in around her, and the world has suddenly become very, very real to her, and she’s aware of the threats around her. So she thinks in order to save herself and her children, that this is the cause of action she has to take. I think she becomes increasingly rooted in and fanatical about that and clutches to that because it’s the only concept of stability she has.
So I think where she previously was this rebellious young woman that she then clings to things out of fear and self-preservation. That’s why she starts to clutch to these institutions that previously she would have turned her nose up at. It’s the only life raft she thinks she has.
So do you think we, as viewers, perhaps forget that while she was the queen of France, there were societal pressures on her that went beyond that supposed ultimate authority? After all, she was still a woman living in a very patriarchal society in a very patriarchal time. Do you think we’ve modern audiences have been a little unkind to Marie?
I do. I think she has been villainized for things that she does in this film, which would have been much more understandable not for the terrible reputation she’s had. I do think it’s mostly rooted in misogyny because so much of it is falsely claiming that she had as much power.
But as you said, she was a woman in that era, and as a woman, you’re told that your existence is kind of inconsequential. You’re a breeder. So for so many people to criticize her for giving bad advice to Louis, her husband, who actually had all the power and was the head of the autocracy.
You kind of think, well, no wonder she gave bad advice; you don’t educate your women. So I don’t know why anyone is shocked that she was giving bad advice in the first place! Teach her politics and how to read.
Do you see Marie as the villain of this story?
I do, and I wanted to play her as such. I think you can acknowledge the context and the reason that someone engages in the actions that they do and still think that it’s deplorable. It wasn’t impactful enough to dilute it and try and elicit empathy for her in this film. I don’t think that’s the point.
I was really struck by the rhetoric that she came out with in the final scene because it rang really familiar to the rhetoric that we’re hearing at the moment. I kind of wanted to show what that remorselessness looks like and that ultimate pragmatism when you think that you have to save yourself, and therefore any kind of threat to you or any kind of change is rejected.
It was more important to me, I think, to draw that parallel for a contemporary audience and route that moment and that performance in something that could resonate with a modern audience rather than, you know, in who is a kind of painstakingly accurate portrayal of what she actually was or would have done.
Was it fun to play both sides of the coin, both the empathetic patron of the arts in the beginning and then the slightly more tyrannical, I think might be the word for Queen of France at the end?
From an acting point of view, it’s satisfying getting to go to the extremes of the emotional spectrum. I think it shows that terrible and deplorable behavior can come from something that you previously sided with and thought was the good guy, and everyone is the hero of their own story.
So it helps to lure the audience in with the side of her that was also totally authentic and, and show that everything is true at the same time, you can be this front facing, you know, very magnetic, fizzy, enticing person and also have the capability to do such terrible things.
Chevalier is in cinemas across the UK from June 9, 2023. If you want to know more about the film, we have an interview with its star Kelvin Harrison Jr and
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