Friday, December 29, 2023

Fiddling Around with “Chevalier”

Many of today’s storytellers seem to be trying hard to make amends for historical oversights. See TV’s popular Bridgerton, which whimsically insists (based on some dubious historical rumors) that Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, was of Black African descent.  

I never saw Belle, the 2013 British drama, which embroiders the details of the actual life of an eighteenth-century young woman. History says she was welcomed into the household of an English aristocrat because she was the mixed-race daughter of his nephew and an enslaved African woman living in the Wests Indies. We know about Belle through a 1779 painting, commissioned by the First Earl of Mansfield, showing her and his own daughter as well-dressed youthful companions. But few details of her adult life are available, and so the filmmakers were free to invent a story that coincides with Britain’s 1807 abolition of the slave trade.  

Then there’s the fascinating 2022 film, Chevalier, about an 18th century musician who became a major figure in his own day. Joseph Bologne, who was later granted the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born in Guadeloupe, the son of a French planter and a 17-year-old slave of African descent. An unusually gifted child, Joseph was sent to France to be educated, excelling in fencing, shooting, horsemanship, and above all music. A violinist from an early age,  he developed a great deal of confidence in his talents. (The film shows him, as a young man, interrupting a concerto performed by the visiting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in order to suggest that the two perform the piece side by side, in a kind of classical fiddle-off. Which they do, with dazzling results.)_

 Among the aristocracy of 18th century France, Bologne was alternately viewed as a genius and a fraud, an “upstart Mulatto” and something of a sex symbol. At least, he was a great favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, who attended many performances of his work. By this time, he was busily composing violin sonatas, chamber pieces, symphonies concertantes, and comic operas, sometimes for his own orchestras, while also taking time out to defeat local fencing masters who had sneered at his racial heritage. In 1776, he lost the prestigious post of orchestra conductor at the Paris Opera when some of the players refused to perform under his direction.  

 I gather the historical record has little to say about his love life. Not surprisingly, the movie makes up for this omission. Though Bologne (rising American actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is handsome and hunky, it is made clear that he’s resigned to never marrying. As we’re told, his marriage to a white woman would have then been illegal under French law. And if he were to wed a Black woman, he’d have to forfeit his much-prized title. That doesn’t stop him, though, from having a torrid affair with a beautiful and talented aristocrat (Samara Weaving), whose powerful husband doesn’t want her singing in public. Alas, it doesn’t end well.

 The film fades out, circa 1789. as revolutionary forces arise to take on the power of the French monarchy. Bologne, who has learned (partly through his spirited mother) to value the Black side of his inheritance, has a small moment of triumph, one that’s probably too theatrical to be true. But we do know, via an on-screen legend, that he went on to serve as a colonel in the Légion St.-Georges, comprised of “citizens of color” fighting in opposition to the Bourbon status quo. There was clearly a lot more to his life than was seen in the movie. Maybe there’s a plan for a sequel?



Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Rashomon Mishmash that is “Les Girls”

Which Hollywood film borrows something from Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking Rashomon and something from Marlon Brando’s biker persona in The Wild One? Give up? It’s an MGM musical comedy from 1957, titled Les Girls.

 As a longtime fan of bright, splashy Hollywood musicals, I looked forward to seeing a film directed by George Cukor, scored by Cole Porter, and starring Gene Kelly. Sadly, none of their talents are fully on display here. The words and music by Porter (for whom this was a final motion picture) are totally forgettable. The charm and precision of Cukor (I just rewatched Adam’s Rib for the umpteenth time) are only a sometime thing. Kelly, about to move on to producing and directing, still looks good and dances well, but he seems in this film to be ageing out of the romantic lead category. The three “girls” of the title do each have their moments, but the film itself is an odd hybrid of outrageous shenanigans, romantic passion, and musical comedy shtik. Still, it’s not the worst way to pass an evening at home on the couch.

  The film begins in a London courtroom, with one very posh matron suing another for libel. It seems Sybil (now Lady Wren) has published a tell-all memoir of her years in a cabaret performance troupe. In her best-seller she has detailed the suicide attempt of Angele, one of her dance colleagues, when a passionate romance went awry. Cut to Paris, where younger versions of the elegant British Sybil (Kay Kendall) and the perky American Joy (Mitzi Gaynor) are featured in a popular stage revue led by Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly). They are quickly joined, both on-stage and in a not-too-shabby Paris apartment, by a new recruit, the flirtatious French Angele (Taina Elg). Angele has a devoted French suitor back home in the provinces, but she is all too quick to make the moves on Barry, who responds with enthusiasm. Disaster strikes when Angele’s provincial (but hugely wealthy) fiancé shows up with his parents, thinking she’s in the nation’s capital to study nursing. She panics, ruins the evening’s performance, as well as—apparently—her romantic future on both fronts. Sadly, suicide seems the only way out, but she’s rescued just in time.

 Back in the British courtroom, we now get Angele’s testimony, which exonerates her completely while flashing back to Sybil’s (hilarious) drunken antics in that Paris apartment. Her condition prompts fisticuffs between the supportive Barry and Sybil’s own longtime suitor, a starchy British lord. Kendall’s uproarious tipsiness in this section reminds us what a boon she was to the entertainment world before her all-too-early death at age 37. The flashback ends with an account of a suicide attempt not by Angele but by Sybil herself.

 On Day 3 of the trial, Barry himself shows up as a surprise witness. In HIS version (this is how the Rashomon analogy fits in), neither Sybil nor Angele successfully captured his romantic attention. And the suicide attempts in each woman’s courtroom story have a very different explanation, which winds up ending the trial with good will restored all around. Or is it?

 How does Marlon Brando fit into all this? There are, of course, a number of dance numbers in the film, all choreographed by Hollywood legend Jack Cole. Some are lurid, one tries hard to be risqué, all are well danced. But the best of them features Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor. She’s a lovelorn café proprietor; he’s a biker (like Brando’s Johnny) with a black leather jacket and a gang of henchmen. Things quickly get steamy: definitely worth the price of admission.