'Chevalier': Locarno Review

Chevalier Still – H 2015
Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno

Chevalier Still – H 2015

A cerebral take on male rivalry on the Aegean.

Athina Rachel Tsangari's follow-up to her acclaimed Greek Weird Wave film 'Attenberg' explores male competitiveness.

Nothing is as serious as a game of one-upmanship in Chevalier, Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third feature and a follow-up to her well-received 2010 Venice competition title Attenberg. Here working without Oscar-nominated Dogtooth director and Attenberg star and producer Yorgos Lanthimos (who went on to make the English-language feature The Lobster) but with Lanthimos’s regular co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, onboard, this new film is almost a negative image of Tsingari’s previous outing, as she replaces the young female duo in the process of self-discovery with a group of older males trying to affirm their perceived dominance. Though a sliver more accessible than some of the other titles from that cinematic equivalent of cubism, the Greek Weird Wave, this Locarno competition title still won’t have turnstiles spinning like crazy at cinemas, though festivals and VOD platforms should be welcoming.

Chevalier is named for the signet ring worn by French nobility and also directly refers to the main prize in a spontaneous contest invented by a sextet of Greek men on a yacht in the Aegean. They are a motley crew, ranging from the elderly, clearly well-off gentleman referred to as “the Doctor” (Yorgos Kentros), the distinguished original owner of the ring who looks like the Greek cousin of Terence Stamp, to the thirtyish, slightly chunky and often childish Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), who often feels like the odd one out. Also present are Dimitris’ older brother, Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos), who is the doctor’s son-in-law; the handsome and sporty Christos (Eurovision singer-turned-actor Sakis Rouvas); and colleagues Josef Nikolaou (Vangelis Mourikis, from Attenberg) and Yorgos (Panos Koronis, Before Midnight), the latter the primus inter pares in terms of competitiveness in a very crowded field.

Filippou and Tsangari’s screenplay never explicitly mentions why the men are out at sea together and it takes a while before each character registers as a separate entity and even then there’s never a sense they might have a life beyond the time they spend together onscreen. But like the other Greek Weird Wave titles, this film is not about individual stories, experiences and relationships so much as the mechanisms and patterns that emerge whenever and wherever people are together. Just like a cubist painting, what happens in the film doesn’t necessarily resemble real life in a narrow documentary sense but instead gives the viewer something else: a chance to consider certain behavior from various sides and on a more abstract level.

Aboard the yacht, the goal of the doctor and his men is to establish who is “the best in general,” rather than in one particular task. This leads them to decide to grade each other during a series of self-invented challenges -- including calling their loved-ones on speaker phone to see who seems to be the most loved by the homefront, or skipping stones -- and general things such as each other’s attitudes, postures and underwear choices. Though perhaps a somewhat extreme form, similar games have probably occurred more than once in places wherever men go to bond (it is, of course, in itself telling that male bonding always seems to involve an element of competition).

With evident glee, the female director subverts gender stereotypes from the get-go, with Christos worrying about what to wear on the morning of the first day of challenges, and the first test apparently involving some serious cleaning duties, from the swanky vessel’s silverware collection to the windows, which one of the contenders tries to scrub clean with his entire body, snow-angel style. The subversive message is never explicitly stated but comes through loud and clear nonetheless: Men will enthusiastically apply themselves to whatever task, even ones they’d normally abhor or would consider not manly or beneath them, as long as the task is part of a competition and they are aware they are being watched for anything that might not classify as their best behavior.

Also from the start of their best-at-everything Olympics, secret pacts are forged, with (almost) everyone shrewdly calculating which allegiances are both logical and most beneficial and, conversely, which revelation of some kind of dirty detail -- such as the fact one of them might be sterile or impotent, or another takes a childish interest in spherical pebbles -- could lower the rankings of their rivals. Trust is betrayed as quickly as new alliances are forged, turning the midsection into a busy to-and-fro.

What’s interesting is not necessarily what’s onscreen but what clearly isn’t: Tsingari is not at all concerned with the actual competition and doesn’t bother to explain the challenges or give each contender equal screentime, with some of the tests not lasting more than a couple of shots, such as a flatpack assembly challenge that’s quickly abandoned (clearly, no amount of testosterone can help figure out the sibylline assembly instructions of a certain Swedish furniture giant). One man’s erectile problems and, later, miracle, on the other hand, gets ample screentime, turning the sight of his erect member into something patently absurd in what might be the film’s most suggestive (if somewhat on-the-nose) metaphor.

The director never slavishly cuts to the sextet scoring each other after each dare, either, or tries to create narrative tension by focusing on the one or two contenders who might be breaking away from the pack. Instead, what interests her is the increasingly absurd -- and thus, for the viewers, often increasingly hilarious -- behavior of the competitors; to which embarrassing lengths they are willing to go to win and how their idea of fairness becomes increasingly unbalanced when they get the idea they might be losing.

Seen this way, the fact that the characters are not sharply drawn individuals actually makes sense; their behavior in any single scene might as well be the behavior of their competitor in the next. Tsangari’s point is one about the absurdity of competitive male behavior in general and how ridiculous the men’s actions become if observed from a cool distance. One of the most side-splitting examples of this is a late sequence in which Dimitris lip-synchs to the soft and dainty ballad Lovin’ You, from the silken-voiced Minnie Riperton (who wrote the song for her young daughter, future actress Maya Rudolph), while Yannis waves Roman candles in the background. What’s hilarious is not that the male siblings are performing a very feminine work but that they are willing to go so far outside of their comfort zone because they think they stand a chance of winning, which makes them so delusional they believe they can do anything and can do it right.

Cinematographer Christos Karamanis (Tale 52, Norway) doesn’t have the formal rigor of d.p. Thimios Bakatatakis, who shot Dogtooth, The Lobster and Attenberg, resulting in a film in which the power of the visuals comes less from the framing and mise-en-scene than from the ideas that are being filmed. The yacht-setting also gives the film a generally more intimate, occasionally borderline claustrophobic feel than its predecessors. Production design, costumes and sound work, however, are solid for what must have been quite a tight budget.  

Production companies: Faliro House, Haos Film, Nova, The Match Factory

Cast: Yorgos Kentros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis, Makis Papadimitriou, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Sakis Rouvas, Yiannis Drakopoulos, Nikos Orfanos, Kostas Philippoglou

Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari

Screenplay: Efthimis Filippou, Athina Rachel Tsangari

Producers: Maria Hatzakou, Athina Rachel Tsangari

Executive producer: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos

Director of photography: Christos Karamanis

Production designer: Anna Georgiadou

Costume designer: Vassilia Rozana

Editors: Matt Johnson, Yorgos Mavropsaridis

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 99 minutes