The best movie of the year? Films reviewed: Chevalier, Quasi, Beau is Afraid

Posted in 1700s, comedy, Fantasy, France, Medieval, Music, Parody, psychedelia, Psychiatry by CulturalMining.com on April 22, 2023

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring film festival season continues with Images, where indie film and experimental video meets avant-garde art and media culture. And Hot Docs Documentary Festival starts next week. But this week I’m talking about three new features — a comedy, a historical drama and a movie that defies categorization. There’s a hunchback whose name rings a bell, a musician whose work rivals Mozart’s, and a recluse who must confront what he fears most.

Chevalier 

Wri/Dir: Stephen Williams

It’s the 1780s in Paris, and Joseph de Boulogne (Kelvin Harrison, Jr) is the talk of the town. He’s handsome, witty, educated  and highly-skilled. He’s a champion fencer and a violin virtuoso. He can also compose a score for opera, ballet or orchestra. When Mozart comes to town, he jumps onto the stage and challenges him to a duel — using violins as their weapons. Men admire him, and women swoon. And the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) dubs him Chevalier de Saint-George, the highest title he can receive. Most unusual of all, Joseph de Bologne is Black. Born in the French Caribbean, his father is a wealthy colonist, and his mother a West-African-born slave. 

He takes on as his lover the beautiful Marie Josephine (Samara Weaving); together they hope to launch his career in opera. But he faces opposition from people in high places. His lover is married to a powerful, but abusive man. The Chevalier earlier snubbed another patron La Guimard (Minnie Driver) who bears a grudge. Can a black man in 18th century France rise to the top of a rigid system? And what about the revolution?

Chevalier tells an interesting story about an almost-forgotten historical figure. It’s full of ornate wigs and costumes, dancing ensembles, and crowds on cobblestone streets shouting Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! What it’s missing, though, is a soul. It’s hard to get past the big issues and petty intrigues to care deeply about the main characters. This film has great production values and acting. In fact Kelvin Harrison, Jr is one of the best young actors around, and I’ll see anything he’s in — he’s that good. Sadly, he’s better than the material he has to work with. Chevalier is good enough, but it never reaches the greatness I was hoping for.

Quasi 

By Broken Lizard

It’s France in the 1400s, and Quasimodo, the legendary hunchback with a twisted face, works not as a bellringer in Notre Dame but as a royal torturer. He got the job because he invented the rack to straighten out the hump of fatty tissue on his back. Didn’t work, but turns out the rack is great for causing pain. And the new queen (Adrienne Palicki) has taken a shine to Quasi. She likes his outspoken nature, and the fact he listens to what she says, unlike the vain and egotistical King Guy. Things are looking up when Quasi wins the national lottery. But the grand prize —  meeting with the King — ends up a fiasco. Far from being a fun filled smorgasbord, Quasi leaves the palace with orders to kill the Pope! If not, the King will kill him and all his friends instead. To add to his troubles, when he meets the Pope, Quasi is ordered to assassinate the King! He’s caught in the middle of a feud between two cruel and powerful leaders. How will he ever get out of this one?

Quasi is a sketch comedy parody that transplants The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a new setting.  Unfortunately — aside from a bit of bawdy humour — most of the jokes never go beyond foul language, torture humour and opaque references to oysters. (Why oysters? Why indeed). Then there are scenes like one character having his testicles nailed to a wooden board. (Is this supposed to be funny? I don’t get it.) The film is the product of comedy troupe  Broken Lizard whose five members — Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, and Eric Hanske — wrote, produced and starred in multiple roles, with Heffernan at the helm. Apparently, they’re quite well-known and popular and have made some other movies, including “Super Troopers 1 & 2”. Perhaps they’re an acquired taste (which I have yet to develop) and if I ever do, I’ll be sure to let you know.  But in the meantime, I failed to find humour anywhere in this unfortunate exercise in juvenile excess. 

I guess we could call this a quasi-comedy. 

Beau is Afraid

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a meek, mild-mannered, middle-aged man who lives in an unnamed city. He’s the ultimate passive introvert, whose main goal is to avoid conflict. He has no job or friends and lives alone, but does see a therapist regularly. His main topic? His mom, Mona Wasserman (Patti Lupone) a very successful entrepreneur from a small town called Wasserton. His dad died before Beau was born, so Mona has always been the main influence in his life. Then there’s Elaine, the girl of his dreams, whose Polaroid photo he carries with him wherever he goes. Their time together as teenagers was brief but he will never forget her.

Now he’s supposed to fly to visit his mother, but Beau is afraid. And for good reason. He lives in a dystopian slum full of criminals, drug addicts and naked serial killers roaming the streets. He’s in danger the moment he steps out his door. And his apartment isn’t safe either — it’s infested with poisonous spiders, and bloodthirsty neighbours who slide threatening notes under his door. Nowhere is safe. Luckily his analyst prescribed him a new medication he’s sure will calm Beau down. But it comes with unexpected side effects. 

When he misses his flight, he sets out on foot, beginning a picaresque journey full of strange, wonderful and sometimes hazardous people he encounters along the way. His face and body are battered and bruised, his survival due to sheer luck. But will he ever see his mother again?

Beau is Afraid is a hilarious, dreadful, shocking and amazing drama. It’s uncategorizable, one of those few movies that stand alone, like work by David Lynch, Gaspar Noe  or Lars Von Trier. It’s three hours long, uncomfortable to watch, but clearly something special. It’s multiple-layers deep with more detail than you can absorb in a single viewing. I’m purposely not touching most of the characters and plot because one of the joys of watching this thing is the constant surprises. 

The whole movie is intentionally ambiguous as to what is real, what is imagined, and whether you’re inside a dream or a drug-induced psychosis.

The acting is superb, from Joaquin Phoenix as the eternally abused milquetoast to Patty Lupone as his monstrous mother (possibly her best film performance, ever?), with unforgettable scenes by Parker Posey as an unexpected visitor, Kylie Rogers as a vindictive teen, and Amy Ryan as a Gold Star Mother. Beau is Afraid chews up and spits out everything, from the collapse of the American Dream, to psychoanalysis, hippy communes, police violence, poverty, Big Pharma, and rampant capitalism.

Some people will hate this movie, but I think it’s amazing; maybe the best film of the year.

Beau is Afraid and Chevalier both open across Canada this weekend; check your local listings. Quasi is now streaming across Canada on Disney+.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: