I’d wanted to catch Chevalier (2022) in the theaters, but it only showed locally for a short window. However, it’s finally available streaming on Hulu, and let’s face it, that’s better for us to review it because we can pay more attention to the costumes!
The movie, as a whole, is an entertaining film that gives a glimpse into the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 — June 9, 1799), a talented composer, virtuoso violinist, and champion fencer, among other accomplishments. The film isn’t a complete biopic, but it hits the standard beats of a “misunderstood genius” story, except this genius, Bologne, is misunderstood because he’s Black and society is racist. That’s not underplayed by any means.
Screenwriter Stefani Robinson told Screen Rant:
“If I had enough budget, and time, and resources, I would do the Joseph limited series. It would go on for seasons. It wouldn’t even be limited; it would be unlimited.”
Which is pretty accurate because Bologne’s life story is full of twists and turns that’d fill hours and be far more than a weekend binge-watch. What this flick does is try to answer the question of why would Bologne go from being friendly with Marie Antoinette and seeking her patronage to joining the French Revolutionary Army after the First Republic was established. I suspect there are many reasons he would “change sides,” as it were, but the movie script gives it an air of personal growth and liberation.
This isn’t a bad thing, but I’m sure that nit-pickers will complain that the film doesn’t stick to the historical facts — as if any film did or should. Folks whined a lot about The Woman King (2022) not being “accurate” either, and yet classics like Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (1974) are just as much inaccurate hagiography that get a pass. Yes, Frock Flicks lives to nit-pick the costumes, that’s our whole mission, but we also recognize that historical accuracy is not the number one goal of movies/TV and it’s just entertainment. After all, there’s only so much you can do in an hour and 48 minutes to tell an entertaining story! So we focus on the costumes because that’s easier to get right than cramming a perfectly accurate life story into a movie.
My one complaint about the story here is the love affair between Joseph (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving). It’s based on historical rumor, fine, that doesn’t bug me. But it unrolls within the movie in a somewhat preposterous fashion, while also feeling obligatory to the plot. Worst of all, I didn’t find that the actors had a lot of chemistry, unfortunately, and the dialog failed them. They just state things at each other and don’t connect very well. In comparison, Joseph and the queen have witty banter and have conversations that show each one is paying attention to the other and responding to what the other says. He has a true dialog with Marie-Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), unlike with his lover. Joseph also has a beautifully written and acted relationship with his mother, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo). So while the writing is uneven, it’s certainly not bad.
Since the story cherry-picks from real events, no specific year is given other than “pre-revolutionary.” In 1776, Bologne hoped to become the new director of the Paris Opéra, and his first opera Ernestine premiered in 1777. Because the plot revolves around and connects these events, you could say that’s when the costumes are set as well. Although the revolutionary fervor that occupies the last part of the film really got going in the mid- to late 1780s, after France had spent a ton of money on the American War of Independence. The costumes are mostly suited to the 1770s, but there’s some bits that veer earlier. Note that the main period images we have of Bologne are from the 1780s, and the mens’ fashions are starting to change from the longer waistcoats and full-skirted jackets to a more close-cut style.
Let’s start with the Chevalier himself. His signature color is light blue, though his color palette does change towards the end of the film. In an interview with Schön! Magazine, costume designer Oliver Garcia said:
“There are various reasons why that powder blue is Joseph’s main colour. Firstly, it is the colour that is recorded to be one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours, so it made storytelling sense to use it for Joseph because it’s like his tool for social acceptance within the aristocracy and the French court. It’s almost like a uniform that he needs to put on to be able to exist and flourish within that racially unjust society that he’s in. And then secondly, it’s a very visually peaceful and calming colour and that helped define the character. It also looked great on Kelvin’s skin tone. He shines wearing that blue and it just felt right for the character. It’s a character that’s been in the dark of history for centuries and this was our time to put the spotlight on him and that light reflecting quality was very interesting to use.”
Joseph Bologne wears various shades and textures of blue that give a nice depth to his suits onscreen.
The costumer designer noted how they did strive for a level of accuracy:
“All the costumes we created — which is pretty much 85 percent of what you watched — are all historically accurate for the period. To create those silhouettes, we used the correct corset shapes, the panniers, and the correct underpinnings. So yes, just respectful and truthful to the research that we did.
I think the modern comes in through the design approach because early on, I made the decision to keep the surface decorations of the costumes luxurious and minimal (if I could say that) and just use colours in a way that is more in tune with contemporary fashion sensibility.”
I was pleased to see details like this — Joseph’s shirt cuffs are laced closed through eyelets, which is one of the ways a gentleman’s cuff would close in the period. A simpler method would be a sewn-on ties, and a fancier method would be linked buttons (rather like modern cufflinks), so this shows his status as elevated but not at the most refined level.
One detail that surprised me was Joseph wearing suspenders to hold up his breeches:
They’re pretty and embroidered, but I’ve never seen them before in 18th-c. menswear! So I dug around and found exactly this one extant pair:
Not a lot of info about them though, as most info about men’s suspenders refer to the 19th century. Typically, 18th-c. breeches were tightly tailored to the leg and the waistband was somewhat wide and kept fitted with lacing at the center back. You can see that waistband here:
Oliver Garcia concludes on Joseph’s costume arc saying:
“During the last half of the movie, he’s no longer looking for that approval, he’s in this self-acceptance mode and he embraces his cultural roots and becomes a part of the African community. So, the colours that he wears reflect that. To close the film — the final concert scene — Joseph wears purple, a soft purple, and that was a nod to Prince, who was an inspiration for Kelvin and Stephen. Prince was an artist with great style, swagger, and stage presence, and that was a constant reference for Joseph Bologne.”
It’s not as obvious as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton (2020), it’s really subtle!
Of course, as the queen, Marie-Antoinette gets the most elaborate costumes in the film, and there are some nods to period images. In her first scene, she’s wearing a simplified court gown that reminds me of one of her famous portraits.
“On the one hand, you have all eyes on you, and you’re this spectacle, and you are taking up all this space. And on the other hand, you are entirely restricted with breathing, the way you can project your voice, the way you can move. You are this walking contradiction. And that was so informative to the way I was going to then play her. And I think it helps so much when you have such a tangible and physical ritual of exiting yourself and entering the shoes of this very, very different person in their world.”
Next, when Joesph and the queen get chummy, she’s in a very bright orangey-pink gown (still with too much makeup, which is a problem with most of the ladies in this flick).
She veers between pale blue and bright orange again, first delivering bad news to Joseph:
She gets one classic pale robe a la francaise:
And then wears another jacket when threatening Joseph at the end of the movie. Her two jacket outfits look more 1760s to me.
Then there’s Marie-Josephine, who wears mostly standard-issue late 18th-century outfits, with a few oddities.
All throughout, both the queen and Marie-Joesphine wear heavy modern makeup. Just compare with a more 18th-c. aesthetic and you’ll see that it’s the lack of eye makeup, lighter brows, and lighter lip.
But the costumes aren’t all bad! Mostly they’re pleasantly unremarkable, such as:
One spectacular costume is Marie-Josephine’s stage costume for the opera:
While it may seem over the top, this is reminiscent of period theatrical costumes and allegorical paintings of the era.
The other standout costumes are the more restrained outfits worn by Nanon. The use of textiles and color hint at her story as a Black formerly enslaved woman and mother of the now-famous Chevalier. She goes through her own story arc in costume.
Nanon quickly finds the African community in town and socializes with them, talking and laughing in Creole.
She eventually takes Joseph out to meet her friends. This is when his wardrobe starts changing to darker colors (instead of his pale blues). Nanon is wearing an ikat print in pastels — a fashionable fabric that was considered “exotic” because it was associated with China and the Middle East. It’s like she’s reclaiming that exoticism with her exuberant stance and insistence on bringing Joesph together with her community and their heritage.
At the end of the film, she wears this green striped jacket as she braids Joseph’s hair.
And Nanon wears a more formal French gown at his final concert — green for renewal and growth, perhaps? This is a lovely way to end the movie.
Have you seen Chevalier (2022) yet?