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