Monthly Archives: July 2016

  • Chevalier

    Athina Rachel Tsangari  (2015)

    Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier is a straight-faced satirical comedy about macho competitiveness – the film is easy to summarise because its tone is largely unvarying and it seems to have only one theme.  Six Greek men are holidaying together in the Aegean on a luxury yacht complete with captain, crew and kitchen staff.  The men, mostly middle-class professionals, are relatives or work colleagues.  They include a late-middle-aged (unnamed) doctor; his son-in-law Yannis; the latter’s brother Dimitris; the doctor’s junior-partner-cum-protégé Christos; and two business associates, Yorgos and Josef.  The men go underwater fishing, eat and drink, play cards, argue.  Their instinctive rivalry and the tensions between them are plain to see.  (The group have been described in some reviews of the film as ‘friends’ but there’s little evidence, even at the start, of warm feelings towards each other – and, as a result, little affable veneer to remove.)  The sixsome agree to conduct a structured contest to determine who among them is ‘the best in general’.  The name of the game is ‘Chevalier’ and the winner’s prize will be a chevalier signet ring.

    Chevalier has at least one illustrious predecessor in the male-struggle-for-supremacy-on-a-boat stakes.  In Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), a couple, Andrzej and Krystyna, pick up a hitchhiker whom Andrzej invites to come sailing with them.  Once they’re out on the lake, hostility develops between the two males and boils out of control.  This is principally a sexual rivalry – both men want to impress (and possess) Krystyna – so the dynamics are very different from those at work in Chevalier.   The only women in evidence here are voices or faces in mobile phone or Skype conversations that the men occasionally have with their partners on dry land.  A second major difference from Polanski comes in the explicitness of the competition that comprises most of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s movie.  Her characters are well enough aware of their natural tendencies to devise a framework to accommodate the expression of those tendencies.  By formalising their inherently combative situation, they, in effect, manage it – and reduce the risk of things turning unpredictably, dangerously nasty.  Because of this and because the Chevalier contest doesn’t reveal something essentially different from what we’ve already seen, the dramatic and comic success of the film depends on whether Tsangari can develop the ‘best in general’ competition inventively and engagingly.  I don’t think that she succeeds.

    The men’s criteria for assessing their relative merits are a mildly amusing mixture of obvious and more eccentric tests.  These include, inter alia, dress sense, penis size and erectility, IKEA flat-pack construction, teeth-brushing technique and polishing the yacht’s cutlery.  The men jot down in little notebooks how they rate their companions.  An innocuous conversational exchange may turn out to be a cunningly disguised means of discovering more about and discomfiting an opponent:  one man asks another how he takes his coffee and, on receipt of the answer, silently makes a note of how he rates this.  It must have been fun for Tsangari and Efthymis Filippou, with whom she wrote the screenplay, to think up the various components of the game but this is how they come across – as a succession of jokes.   We rarely see the performances of all six contestants within the same ‘discipline’.  That might not be a weakness if Tsangari used the Chevalier game as a backdrop to exploring the men’s personalities and relationships in more depth but she doesn’t do that either.  She merely underlines, more or less emphatically, what we know about them and their feelings about each other.

    Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) is on the yacht only because his brother Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) decided he’d be better off there than staying home with their mother, with whom Dimitris still lives.  He’s failed to grow up in more ways than one.  Squat and unprepossessing, he’s still scared of sleeping with the lights off and of having injections.   His admiration for Yorgos (Panis Koronis) suggests, rather than homosexual attraction, a bashful, boyish hero-worship of a Real Man.  (Yorgos treats Dimitris pleasantly in return, though this may be in order to ensure he gets top marks from him.)   Unlike the others, Dimitris doesn’t appear to have a profession to go back to when the holiday ends:  his main interest seems to be in collecting stones (the more perfectly round, the better).  One of the highlights of Chevalier comes when Dimitris lip-syncs and dances to Minnie Riperton’s ‘Lovin’ You’, accompanied by Yannis on hand-held fireworks.   It’s a highlight because it’s more substantially bizarre than what’s gone before and because it gives Dimitris his moment in the limelight.  The performance causes an argument – a brief coming to blows – but this doesn’t involve Dimitris.  The falling-out results from the negative reaction of the doctor (Yiorgos Kendros) to Yannis’s sparklers, and puts the seal on this pair’s mutual antipathy.   In other words, Tsangari deflects attention from the fact that Dimitris’s routine, although it’s enjoyable for the audience in the movie theatre, would be ridiculed on the yacht.  This sequence reflects the function of Dimitris in the movie as a whole:  it’s because he’s incongruous that he’s the most appealing person on board.  In that competition, the runners-up are the yacht’s cooks (Kostas Filippoglou and Giannis Drakopoulos).  These two are engaged in both a running commentary (someone is sure to have described this as a Greek chorus) on the Chevalier game and their own mini-version of it.

    Yorgos is the most obviously alpha male in the group – and the most at ease with himself, apart from an anxious moment when he suffers hypoxia while deep-sea diving with Christos (Sakis Rouvas) and asks him not to mention this weakness to the others.  Christos eventually breaks his word – he’s one of the top two contenders for the prize – but Yorgos survives to win the signet ring, for what it’s worth.  As Josef (Vangelis Mourikis) predicted to Yorgos at an early stage and as Athina Rachel Tsangari confirms in her coverage of the competition’s outcome, what it’s worth is not much.  The film begins with a shot of cliffs and sea:  we realise how vast both are as the microscopic figures of the six men in the story emerge from the water.  When the yacht finally returns to Athens late at night, its occupants disembark invisibly in the darkness.  Tsangari and the cinematographer Christos Karamanis have created remarkably beautiful images with these opening and closing shots but their combined message is an over-familiar one:  how little the intervening human conflicts and contests have mattered!   That links to what is, less intentionally, the message of Chevalier as a piece of cinema.  All the cast are good but they’re upstaged by their director’s cool derision and calculation:  Tsangari is smart enough to know that the tone of the piece will cause plenty of viewers (especially critics) to confuse deadpan with seriousness, even depth.  It’s probably an advantage to her too that Greek’s political and economic crises will encourage (bogus) allegorical readings of the material.

    The film’s trailer was punctuated by a score flashing up on the screen after each clip of someone performing one of the elements of the Chevalier game (+5 points, -4 points, and so on).  At HMV Curzon in Wimbledon, where I saw Chevalier, I picked up a promotional handout for the movie.  Inside it, there are rules for coin snatching, staring and arm wrestling, a scoring system for each of these, and a card for two contestants to enter their totals on, and determine who is ‘best in general’.  (You can then post your results on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for a chance to win a selection of Studio Canal DVDs.)  The film itself – in spite of the references to characters awarding other characters high or low scores and of rankings – doesn’t have this point-scoring detail.  Chevalier might have been more entertaining and more likeable if it had included what the trailer suggested was in store.  This would have indulged viewers’ vicarious interest in the competition on screen and, in doing so, might have undermined our secure distance from the men in the movie – even if it didn’t affect Athina Rachel Tsangari’s sense of superiority to them.  In an interview with Adam Nayman in Sight & Sound (August 2016), Tsangari says several surprising things, including:

    “I love the men in Chevalier,” she insists.  “I adore them.  I get sad when people don’t see them that way, as if I didn’t manage to express my love for them”.

    Two words in that quote ring true: as if.

    27 July 2016

  • Bug

    Jeannot Szwarc (1975)

    Bug is an often effective, sometimes frightening horror film about an American science teacher’s experiences with a species of fire-making insects – he breeds and is eventually destroyed by them. The picture is a hybrid which derives from Frankenstein, The Birds and various who-knows-what-lies-deep-in-the-earth pictures.  The screenplay is adapted by William Castle (who also produced) and Thomas Page from the latter’s novel The Hephaestus Plague The main character, Jim Parmiter, is played by Bradford Dillman (who looks like a more thoughtful and, as the film progresses, increasingly emaciated version of James Garner).  The animal behaviourist Parmiter is a hip, showoff-pedant, who puts his points over in class by ‘hopping around like a frog on heat’ and getting a grey squirrel to run up his arm.  He’s relaxed and quietly arrogant with his students.  Parmiter automatically dismisses the notion of the bugs – mutant cockroaches released by an earthquake and allegedly able to start a fire by rubbing their legs together.  When he actually encounters the creatures and their capacities, Parmiter sees them as threatening his intellectual self-esteem as much as public safety.

    The so-you-think-this-could-mean exchanges that are par for the course in laboratory-based thrillers are replaced in Bug by what sounded to me like credible dialogue.  After causing numerous fires and several deaths and injuries, the firebugs begin to die off.  Although he and a colleague agree they can’t propagate, Parmiter is nevertheless determined to breed the insects, with the help of a pressure chamber.    The sequence of events is a bit confusing at this point:  Parmiter’s nervously lovely wife (Joanna Miles) is killed by a bug when the species are on the point of extinction but after her husband has begun his breeding experiments.  Parmiter is so hellbent on the project that his wife’s death has hardly any effect on him.  You could probably write the rest of the script yourself.  A female bug mates with a male cockroach; the powerful, carnivorous offspring retains the combustive abilities of its parent.  The bugs multiply and turn against their creator, who is driven mad by a combination of the insects and his own isolation.  A huge split in the ground caused by the earthquake which brought forth the bugs originally swallows up, in a final inferno, both Parmiter and the by-now airborne creatures.

    The Birds is often described as apocalyptic.  Bug is more so, even though the biblical metaphor is so confused that the effect might be accidental.  When the earthquake strikes, we’re watching a church service; the god-fearing are being harangued on the rottenness of modern America.   As the light-fittings start to shake and the building caves in, panic breaks out in the congregation.  A plague of baleful insects and the final conflagration reinforce the apocalyptic flavour.  Alfred Hitchcock offered no explanation for his birds’ hostility and Jeannot Szwarc follows suits in Bug.  This film doesn’t have the elegant craftsmanship of Hitchcock; there are no smoothly sinister pans of the massing enemy as there were along the telegraph poles in The Birds.  The physical attacks in Bug are relatively vivid (and offensive), though – quite unlike The Birds in which, after the climactic assault, Tippi Hedren emerged with a few tiny scratches on her face.  It’s terrifying when, late one night, a cat eats one of the insects then dies in torment, smoke pouring from its head – but the clever editing and the darkness stop you from resenting the shock:  you’re straining actually to see the stricken animal.  When people are attacked in broad daylight, however, you do resent it:  the camera zooms leeringly in as bugs land on ears and eyes.

    The vicarious appeal of the recent disaster movies was that the situations they described were possible but improbable.  It’s different in Bug.  The idea of exploding, untouchably hot, lethal insects is impossible but the creepy-crawly detail is highly familiar (more so even than the flapping of birds’ wings in a restricted space).  This is what Szwarc shrewdly exploits.  The dry scratching noises on the soundtrack aren’t imaginative but they’re sufficient to irritate the audience physically.  The head-splitting buzz of the insects’ wings in their final attack on Parmiter is an amplification of a sound that everyone will recognise – a droning bluebottle in an airless room.  Physically, the bugs are very unusual – steely, throbbing shells.  The mutant insect is alluringly obscene, coated in thick, syrup-like black varnish and cased in indestructible red brick.  The mechanical special effects by Phil Cory are ingenious.

    The film begins to collapse when the scientist goes mad because Bradford Dillman doesn’t express insanity very well and because you’re distanced from the action (more distanced because of the corny histrionics).  You don’t really identify with Parmiter once Dillman brings out suppressed madman giggles and random smiles.  Jeannot Szwarc pours light onto Dillman’s staring, frightened face so that it seems to be disintegrating – but the actor is too obviously straining to realise a man in meltdown.   The crazy fear is sustained, though, by shamelessly contrived means:  when the bugs turn on Parmiter, they demonstrate their excellent command of English by configuring themselves on a wall so that they write his name and, in a chillingly ominous stroke, ‘We live’.   Did we really see it or did Parmiter, his mind disturbed, imagine it?    The exterior photography by Michel Hugo contrasts beautifully with these lurid effects yet it’s equally unnerving.  The landscape – blue sky, yellow sand – is an unreal, motionless terrain, enervated, like the twitchy characters in the story, by the summer heat.  It seems vulnerable to attack.

    I don’t like Bug but it’s clever, on the same level as Jaws.  Like Spielberg, Jeannot Szwarc gets mileage out of preparing you for shocks that don’t materialise; after we’ve seen one car explode, the camera looms up to others then moves away.  There’s scarcely an original touch in the film but, though it borrows from trashy movies, you don’t mind because the director is having fun squeezing the melodramatic juice from the various elements.  However, when Bradford Dillman, on fire, rushes frantically to his death in ‘lyrical slow-motion’ that’s meant to intensify his pain and panic, the film looks silly:  this is too blatant a pinch from The Towering Inferno (which tried to create a ‘beautiful’ visual device in a vulgar setting).  Bug will die a death in cinema history, I should think, and it starves the memory but, while it’s on screen, ‘It lives’.


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