Review: Athena Tsangari’s Chevalier (2015)
Athina Rachael Tsangari’s Chevalier (2015) is one of those films that unfold slowly, leisurely revealing scenes that begin to anticipate intelligent, multi-layered dialogue rather than surprise plot developments. Six Greek men are on a yacht — a status symbol that literally brings the whole film together— and with not much else to do, they decide to engage in a game of ‘The Best in General’. The Doctor (Yorgos Kendros), who is the eldest of the lot and the yacht’s owner, concedes his chevalier ring as the prize for this strange game’s winner, confident that he will emerge victorious. But the game is not as simple as it seems; or rather, it is much simpler, which is what makes it so nefarious. Notebook and pen in hand, the characters spend the entire film giving each other scores on tasks as varied as cleaning silverware, getting blood tests, judging how well they sleep and even measuring the length of their erect penises.
The whole work buzzes with an underlying tension between the striking cinematography, the film’s absurdist or ‘weird’ (to borrow a term widely used for Greece’s most recent film successes, spearheaded by Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Tsangaris’ own Attenberg) dialogue and the clear references to Greece’s all too real social and political situation. The men are clearly situated in an upper-class environment, surrounded by expensive furniture, a crew including a cook and a butler, and spending their time smoking cigars, riding jet skis — but their conversations more often than not hit a wall. Is there such a thing as an objective fact when it comes to figurative language? Can everyone come to an agreement as to what animal Antonis (Vangelis Mourikis) mostly resembles? Or is everything relative? The men’s conversations double as both an unnerving and humorous superficiality and a reminder that such linguistic exchanges are the only kind of ‘depth’ or ‘substance’ there ever can be between human beings.
For once, here is a movie set in Greece that uses the sea, the islands and maritime leisure without falling uncritically back onto cinematic cliches of such spaces. It is not summertime, and the sea spreads all around the yacht in hues closer to grey and ash blue rather than the typical bright turqoise of Aegean holiday ads. This allows the more sinister undertones of Chevalier to emerge in a way that complements the dark humor of the script. Tsangari is masterful in her direction of the actors, helping each develop a signature posture and tone that is a cushion of comfort in a film where nothing much happens. There is a background narrative tying these men together — yet it is never explicitly spelled out for us. What we get are the symptoms of their relationships, which are all tied to the social constructs of masculinity, virility and success. When the handsome yet insecure Christos, played by Greece’s most famous pop idol for decades, Sakis Rouvas, keeps telling himself: ‘I don’t have fat thighs, I don’t have fat thighs’, we are urged to probe the silent past of his good looks and picture perfect personality while having a good laugh at him to boot. The absence of women from the yacht is as effective as it is frustrating. Wives and girlfriends are relegated to the non-visual realm of cell phone or Skype conversations, a nod to the film’s ironic ‘boys will be boys’ mentality.
You can barely discern the climax of Chevalier — I argue there isn’t one, despite the ritualistic scene towards the end of the film where blood is actually spilled and the stakes seem to shoot up to an unprecedented high. While it might seem like the beginning of a denouement, this crowning moment of the participants’ competitiveness, oddly initiated by the otherwise level-headed Yorgos (Panos Koronis) refuses to give up anything definitive when it comes to the film’s impossible elephant in the room: who wins the game of ‘The Best In General’? I had to watch that final scene a couple of times before spotting the visual clue that gave away the winner. The fact that the game’s outcome doesn’t really matter, however, is confirmed by the fact that the film ends with a scene featuring the yacht’s cook and butler, who have started their own game of ‘The Best in General’. It seems that absurd competitiveness is infectious.