Chevalier (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 105 minutes approx.
In the past decade the words “Greek cinema” and “black comedy” tend to serve more as a warning sign than a selling point, such is the esoteric level of offbeat decadence our Mediterranean friends attain. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third directorial outing is another one to add to the list.
A fishing trip on a luxury yacht sees six well-heeled men – The Doctor (Yiorgos Kendros), Yorgos (Panos Koronis), Josef (Vangelis Mourikis), Christos (Sakis Rouvas) and brothers Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) and Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) – seemingly in constant competition with one another, from their success with fish to the trivial. An argument over a silly game at the dinner table leads to an interesting proposition.
Christos suggests they play the game “Chevalier” in which everything they do is judged by everyone else, with the winner being declared the “Best At Everything” and gets to wear the Chevalier ring. Whether it is within the remit of a staged contest or in how they carry themselves in their everyday manner, points are scored. Typically, when the desire to win gets too overwhelming things start to get awkward.
It’s a wonderfully ripe premise to be given the long overdue satire treatment and one Tsangari, as a woman, presumably took great pleasure in when scripting with male co-writer and regular Yorgos Lanthimos collaborator Efthymis Filippou. You wouldn’t notice any specific gender traits in the direction of this film, its quiet, sober tone and lack of visual flourish, along with the deftly drawn male characters could easily have come from a man.
However much enjoyment there is to be found in the pricking of the male ego, Chevalier is not an exercise in misandry, and its message can be appreciated by both genders. If anything, the target is just as much the upper middle classes and their inflated sense of status, since regular Joes wouldn’t concoct such a bourgeois way to compare their manhood.
Incidentally, comparing one’s manhood is actually one of the contests they participate, so perhaps the class distinction only reaches so far in terms of how far the alpha male will go to prove their superiority. Because they are on a male only yacht – complete with three male staff – they rely on erotic stories being read unerotically to them to in order to ensure they can compete.
Elsewhere the six men are constantly keeping an eye out for how well groomed each other are, how they sleep, what food they like and even their phone ringtones. Occasionally they will compete in proper head-to-head races such as constructing flat pack storage units or stone skimming, the latter at the expense of Dimitris’ pebble collection.
Behind the competitive nature lie six distinct personalities which take a while to reveal themselves. Dimitris as the savant of the group sticks out early on, bullied by his older brother Yannis, an insurance salesman and general dickhead to boot. The Doctor is the oldest and in lieu of his profession and his ownership of the yacht, the de facto leader of the group. He doesn’t often pull rank but his word is revered nonetheless.
Christos is the good-looking one who is hiding an inferiority complex, trying psyche himself up daily whilst convincing himself his thighs are fat, proving men can suffer from body issues too. Josef and Yorgos two older men that are similar in appearance, both with greying beards and world-weary expressions. They are old friends but this contest threatens this ruin their close bond.
While the plot is fertile ground for outrageous behaviour, extreme pathos and profound exploration into the weak spot of the male psyche where the need for pubic and personal validation in a group context is so rampant, the execution is less than dynamic. This is quite and brooding film and often subject to moments of inertia when the men are just watching each other or are alone with their insecurities.
Satire doesn’t always have to be blatant – in fact it often works best when it is dark and subtle but Tsangari and Filippou have kept the tone so deadpan that the notion this is a comedy will pass many viewers by. The humour is so arcane and subtle it is as if they are sharing a private joke and we are left on the outside trying to ascertain what they are laughing at.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t any humour to be found here but its mileage and impact will vary from viewer to viewer. The ludicrous rendition of Minnie Ripperton’s classic Loving You late in the film will likely be the highlight for most, standing as the most accessible gag in the whole 105 minutes. In contrast, I can’t imagine there’d be many people excited to see an old man with his fully erect tackle on display.
Perhaps for serious cineastes, the major saving grace is that this isn’t a Hollywood film, which would no doubt star Adam Sandler or Chris Rock and would be full of juvenile gross out humour; sadly it would also probably be funnier by default, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be better. Even when the material reaches base level, there is still an air of panache and louche quality to it.
It is really the committed performances of the excellent cast, who perhaps weren’t aware themselves that they were making a comedy, and the high quality presentation that will keep audiences unable to get the humour lasting the duration. By the time the end credits roll, we don’t know if any lessons were learned but Tsangari has already established her intention for us to draw our own conclusions.
Chevalier could have been more incisive and less reliance on dense ambiguities in its approach to its core subject and is too subtle for its own good. More to power to anyone who connects with this film but for this writer it is too oblique and an opportunity to make a point sadly missed.
2.0 LPCM Stereo
5.1 DTS HF Master Audio
Rating – ** ½
Man In Black