By: Daniel Reynolds
Standing outside of it, you often have to wonder what the hell men are always fighting about. Throwing hands is part of it, but, more commonly, just think of the constant hum of competition that buzzes between a group of dudes if they spend enough time together. Fellas, you know what I’m talking about — you probably don’t have to think too hard to recall your last poker night, or run at the club, or even the latest bullshit session where you inevitably dog-piled on one of your group. It is what it is, for lack of a better explanation. In writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s latest film Chevalier however, we are asked to examine what exactly is up here. What makes men strive to prove they’re the best? Why are we always competing? Why do we insist on this kind of pain? As the film suggests, the answer to these and other questions is somehow both complicated and simple.
In Chevalier, we’re on a boat. It’s quite luxurious, with a three-man crew and rules about wearing shoes in the main cabin (don’t do it). There are six passengers — all men — enjoying the boat’s comforts; they are travelling the Mediterranean for no other apparent reason than because they can. When spear-fishing, jet-skiing and strolls around the deck are no longer cutting it as time-killers, the men decide to hold a contest to determine who is “Best in General.” The development of this alpha male game, with rules never quite made clear and a scoring system as opaque as the surrounding sea, will nonetheless be familiar to any dudes out there who’ve spent time cooped up in a car, cottage or office with other guys for any length of time. Don’t ask me yet to give you some psychological explanation for it — it just happens.
As the film reveals the connections between the men, Chevalier begins to burrow its way deeper into this idea. The boat is owned by the Doctor (Yiorgos Kendros), and he’s invited his younger handsome partner Christos (Sakis Rouvas) aboard. Along with him come two real estate men, the charming Yorgos (Panos Koronis) and somewhat weaselly Josef (Vangelis Mourikis), followed by the Doctor’s son-in-law Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) and his Rainman-esque brother Dmitris (Makis Papadimitriou). Through visuals alone, a pecking order is established. These men project varying levels of wealth — fine sweaters and a casualness with the help relay this — and along with it, coupled with their physical appearances, varying levels of confidence. As with other Greek films in their recent new wave, the camera largely sits still in its efforts to regard these men. Lacking places to hide, both physically and emotionally, each man’s weaknesses are gradually exposed.
In another context, it would be easy to track Chevalier as a horror movie, a narrative that slides into each man’s heart of darkness and comes up with murderous intent. While there is blood in the film, Chevalier is actually an acerbic and extremely dry comedy. The games these men play jump from who can do the best job cleaning the ship (use toothpaste for silverware!) to who can build an IKEA shelf the fastest. Through it all, the men make marks in little notebooks, scoring the games and each interaction by some undefined and impossible metric. The recurring image of them scribbling always works as a punchline. And yes, Tsangiri is aware of the subtext: there is an actual dick measuring contest here too, but it’s shot in such an oblique way it takes a moment to register what we’re seeing. Somehow, though an obvious beat, it also gets a laugh. Still funnier, to me at least, was the suggestion that this brand of male competition could actually become contagious. Scenes of the ship’s crew gathering to compare notes on how the games are going recall our urge to discuss the latest sporting event or fantasy league happening. The wealthy playing games to alleviate drudgery in the life of the common man — nope, no parallels there at all.
If we were holding a Weird Greek Film competition however, Tsangari’s work would arguably not place in the top three — those spots are held by friend Yorgos Lanthimos‘ oeuvre of bizarre entries (including the recent The Lobster). Chevalier‘s nebulous intent obscures some of its bite, which makes the machinations of the plot harder to pin down. We get what we’re watching — the men needling each other, the eventual underlying feelings and insecurities coming to the fore — but as the second half’s pace drags on, it feels fair to wonder when the closing ceremonies will arrive. The subtext of the film never overwhelms its characters, but you may find yourself asking, like, hey are these guys going to fight or fuck or what? Despite a whiff of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel — in which trapped wealthy dinner guests begin to turn on each other — things never quite get that, uh, grizzly.
Still, for all its low-hanging thematic fruit, Chevalier takes surprising strides in showing both the good and bad sides of a certain type of manhood. These guys are not monsters; they’ll compete, yes, but they also care. The question of why — besides proximity and boredom — does not get answered specifically, but then again, men don’t really need a reason. It’s said that we aren’t as open with our emotions as women, and this is true to a certain extent. But Chevalier makes the accurate case that it’s not as hard as you’d think to find a man and his feelings. They’re there together in every casual contest, or social hazing. Sure, not everyone can be the alpha male, but the desire to feel a part of something, a group or brotherhood, can make the entire experience, even the pain, worthwhile. And hey, a man can always tell himself that next time, with a fresh start, the score will be reset to zero-zero.