What Should Men Fear?
Chevalier & Beau is Afraid
Reviews by Marc Glassman
Stephen Williams, director
Stefani Robinson, script
Music score by Kris Bowers with some assistance by Michael Abels (and including pieces by Bologne, Mozart and Gluck)
Performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges), Samara Weaving (Marie-Josephine de Montalembert), Lucy Boynton (Marie Antoinette), Marton Csokas (Marquis de Montalembert), Alex Fitzalan (Louis Philippe the second, Duke of Orleans), Minnie Driver (Marie-Madeleine Guimard), Ronke Adekoluejo (Nanon), Sian Clifford (Mme. De Genlis), Joseph Prowen (Mozart), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Christoph Gluck)
Beau is Afraid
Ari Aster, writer-director-producer
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Beau Wassermann), Patti LuPone (Mona Wassermann), Amy Ryan (Grace), Nathan Lane (Roger), Kylie Rogers (Toni), Denis Menochet (Jeeves), Parker Posey (Elaine Bray), Zoe Lister-Jones (Young Mona), Armen Nahapetian (Teen Beau), Julia Antonelli (Teen Elaine), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Therapist), Richard Kind (Dr. Cohen), Hayley Squires (Penelope), Julian Richings (Strange Man)
The Chevalier de Saint-Georges appears to have gone through his life fearlessly, which was likely the right approach given that he provoked outrageous responses wherever he went. The Chevalier, appointed to a royal title by the court of Louis XVI and, in particular, his Queen, Marie Antoinette, was what was then called a “mulatto,” a Black mixed-race man possessed of immense skills and talent. To put it mildly, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier, was an anomaly is 18th century France: a brilliant violinist, composer and swordsman, who attracted the attention, both favourable and unfavourable, of powerful men and beautiful women in the era before—and then during—the French Revolution.
During the turbulent times in which he lived, the Chevalier composed twelve violin concertos, two symphonies, two sets of six string quartets, a sonata for harp and flute, six violin duets, eight symphonie-concertantes, three piano forte and violin sonatas, six opera comiques and a children’s opera. All this, and he led what was very likely the first non-white European militia during the early days of the French Revolution.
“Wait a minute,” I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, “is Joseph Bologne real? How come I’ve never heard about him?” You can blame Napoleon for consigning this pioneering artist and soldier to obscurity after he re-established slavery in France in 1802 and suppressed the works of French Blacks, including Bologne. And though The Chevalier has flaws, it’s fair to acknowledge the film’s makers, director Stephen Williams, a Jamaican-Canadian working in L.A., scriptwriter Stefani Robinson and a slew of producers and researchers, for bringing Joseph Bologne’s remarkable life to the screen.
Williams’s film is presented with the sort of panache and boldness that mirrors the passionate music of Bologne. It starts with a bravura scene where Mozart, at the end of a triumphal concert in Paris, is challenged by Bologne to play violins together in an encore presentation of a concerto. Their “dueling violins” performance is breathtaking in its musicality and audacity, with the charming but egotistical Mozart shocked by the brilliance of Bologne’s playing. While Parisian audiences never actually saw this exciting fictional scene, it is true that Bologne and Mozart lived nearby each other in Paris for three months and may have known each other. And that’s the technique—merging truth with drama—which makes Chevalier so effective.
It’s an historic reality, for instance, that Marie Antoinette favoured the Chevalier, but how their relationship played out is not recorded. Neither kept a diary that detailed their friendship. Rather more dramatically, Bologne’s affair with Marquise Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, which scandalously produced a child, is depicted in the film but what we see may not be how it all played out at the time. Scriptwriter Robinson and director Williams have allowed themselves the liberty to imagine Bologne’s life as it may have occurred in the late 1700s.
The film concentrates on an amazing event that did transpire in 1776. With the position vacant, Bologne went for the role as the director of the Paris Opera, with his opponent being Christoph Gluck. Both were asked to compose operas to show their musical prowess. The creation of Bologne’s opera Ernestine and his growing intimacy with Marie-Josephine while her military husband was away on duty, forms a major part of the film. But the success or failure of the opera, which suffered from a lackluster libretto by de Laclos (of Dangerous Liaisons fame) is shown to be less of an issue than that of racism. Three major divas wrote to the Queen demanding that Bologne not be appointed head of the opera; they simply didn’t want to work with him. And this appalling letter is real, which denied the Chevalier the position he most desired under the “Old Regime.”
Much of Chevalier is witty and quite theatrical as Bologne charms French aristocratic society. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is funny and charismatic as the Chevalier, a sexy aristocrat who knows how to play his part in high society. But the film takes a highly melodramatic turn as Bologne has to confront the racism he’s always carefully avoided. The latter third of the film plays up the Chevalier’s embrace—at last—of liberté, egalité, fraternité. While that’s wonderful politically, it becomes quite emotional in ways that are not keeping with the sharper, subtler tone of the earlier part of the film.
The film ends on a final sentimental note that may reduce the complexity of what the Chevalier’s life was all about. Perhaps too much is made of Bologne’s affair with Marie-Josephine. But the film tells a remarkable story. Joseph Bologne’s life and career deserves this film and at least one more, which would depict what he did as a soldier and statesman and swordsman. What we have here is a wonderful evocation of the musical life of a gifted artist, who one can reasonably claim, was the first great Black Classical music composer and violinist. Chevalier is a film that should be seen by our audience: it may not be perfect, but the music and performances make it more than worthwhile.
Beau is Afraid
Art films have been merging with horror since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari over a hundred years ago so the über odd ball auteur Ari Aster isn’t actually blazing new ground in Beau is Afraid. But there are only a handful of characters in film or literature or theatre or opera, who can match the terrifying relationship between Beau and his mother Mona in Aster’s psychological thriller. Few are fused closer to the hip than these two, given their absurdly grim origin story. It seems that Beau’s dad gave up his sperm and his life to Mona on their wedding night, with the result being the birth of their son nine months later. Mona has never gotten over it and she’s made sure that Beau feels the same way.
Beau is Afraid is a kind of bizarre Pilgrim’s Progress with its main character going on a journey towards a powerful ending, although hardly the happy one in John Bunyan’s book. It starts with Beau living in a terrifying city, where he’s constantly under threat from the angry, nearly homicidal, locals. He agrees to go home to celebrate his parents wedding anniversary (of all things) but one of his neighbours keeps him up all night with loud noises and then Beau’s suitcase and keys are stolen from him when he tries to leave. When he calls his mother to let her know that he can’t go, she reacts with rage. Beau feels trapped and isn’t sure what to do, so he calls Mona again only to find out from a stranger who answers the phone that a decapitated woman has been found in his mother’s house. In desperation, Beau runs out of his apartment on to the street, where he’s chased and fired upon until he’s run over by a van.
In the second section, Beau wakes up badly injured only to find himself a virtual prisoner of the couple who ran him over, Grace and her doctor husband, Roger. They insist on keeping him in their pretentious home, forcing Beau to stay in their daughter Toni’s room, making her sleep on a couch. Of course, she hates him and Beau is made even more uncomfortable by the presence of Jeeves, a homicidal ex-Army buddy of her late brother. Beau calls his mother’s lawyer who informs him that Mona is dead—she’s been decapitated by a falling chandelier—and that everyone is waiting for him to come home so the funeral can take place. In flashbacks, he remembers his adolescence when he fell in love with a beautiful girl, Elaine, on a ship voyage, and that they were violently separated even though she reciprocated his passion. After more threats and another death, Beau runs away from Grace, Roger and Jeeves and enters a forest.
The tone changes abruptly in an oddly idyllic interlude where he meets “The Orphans of the Forest,” a troupe of musicians and actors. In a brilliant animated sequence, Beau is shown an entirely different life, where he undergoes much hardship but ends up with a loving family of sons. That reverie is broken up by the homicidal Jeeves, who starts wreaking havoc on “the orphans.” Beau flees and eventually ends up at his mother’s house.
In the fourth section, Beau arrives too late for Mona’s funeral but we can see by the elaborate nature of the house that she was an immensely successful entrepreneur. A woman arrives, hours after the funeral, with flowers and apologies. She turns out to be Elaine and when they finally make love, it’s she who dies, not Beau, despite his mother’s terrifying warnings that an orgasm would kill him. More than adding to the shock of Elaine’s demise, Mona shows up—not dead and terrifyingly angry at Beau. In an astonishing scene, Mona denounces him.
This leads to the final section, where Beau is on a boat, seemingly free, until immense lights come on, showing that he’s actually in a pool, surrounded by a crowded arena of audience members, ready to hear the case against him presented by Mona and her attorney. Let’s draw a veil on how that turns out.
Beau is Afraid is an epic, which runs to nearly three hours. Aster used his $35 million budget to create an art film comparable to Fellini in its visual splendour and astounding excesses. The film is mesmerizing but confounding, filled with odd psychological twists and a truly bizarre scenario. Joaquin Phoenix is compelling as the ever suffering Beau and Nathan Lane is very funny as the doctor, Ralph, but the film’s acting highlight is hit by Patti LuPone, who is absolutely brilliant as Mona, the scariest mother in filmic history. She is so good that the Academy ought to give her the Best Supporting Oscar right now. It’s wonderful that one of Broadway’s greats has finally been given a role worthy of her talents.
Ari Aster has made a film that will divide opinions. I’m Jewish and it’s clearly the ultimate Jewish guilt fantasy put on the screen. The film is indulgently long and over-the-top emotionally and logically. This is one crazy film! Some people will love it and there will be those who find it to be “too much.” There’s no doubt that Beau is Afraid is excessive and it may not play well to a general audience. But it is remarkable and I, for one, found it compulsively watchable. Kudos to Aster, Phoenix, LuPone, Lane and the rest for a very strange but fascinating film.
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