Chevalier Dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari

[Strand Releasing; 2016]

Styles: contained comedy, Greek Weird Wave
Others: Dogtooth, Alps, Before Midnight

Are even the most successful men deeply insecure little wimps in constant need of validation and acceptance? That seems to be the question (with the implied answer of “yes”) posed by Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier. The film follows six men on a luxury yacht off the coast of Greece as they embark on a vaguely defined set of competitions. So what is the end goal? The men, or at least a few of the men, wish to determine who is the best overall at the game of life with a lowercase “l”; there’s also a symbolic trophy of a chevalier ring thrown in for good measure (one of the characters conveniently wears the ring at the outset when the prize is arbitrarily chosen based on an alleged version of the contest played by others). The games range from a pebble throwing contest to a comparison of blood tests to a literal dick measuring contest; in addition to this, the men constantly keep score of their comrades’ conduct, turning passive aggression into score keeping.

As a social observation, the film’s point is moderately interesting. However, it never amounts to anything beyond a fairly one-note back and forth. The characters judge one another, but at the same time are uncertain of the rules that dictate their assessments. None of them have the confidence to state what one of their most famous Greek ancestors avowed when he claimed to know nothing. However, Socrates would have exhaustively examined the ideas of masculinity and competition in a way that Chevalier never really does. Tsangari seems to accept the inherent absurdity of her film’s premise, but then never really develops it. The subtle attempts to build the characters more often obscure their motivations, with each man given one quirky scene or trait that then becomes his signifier. Moreover, Chevalier does not even live up to the own standards of its contest, as only about half the competitions are shown (to be honest, I wonder if a good deal of the film was edited out for the release). The level of ridiculousness remains relatively flat throughout, with no sense that the desire to win could spiral the game out of control. Even the aforementioned comparison of erections is relatively tame.

The film’s missed potential is perhaps most evident one of the “climactic” (using the term very loosely) scenes. The men eat dinner on the deck of the boat at night; all of them seem to be cold, yet when asked, are hesitant to admit it. Presumably the fear of losing points in the competition drives them, yet this type of show machismo has been absent until this point of the film. To overcome the cold, one of the men drinks too much wine, which leads him to accompany his idiot brother in a lip sync routine (the whole set up basically comes out of nowhere, if you’re confused). Tsangari, perhaps feeling constrained by the boat location, unleashes some cinematic flair here, turning the performance into a miniature spectacle with actual fireworks. Yet the comedic routine’s main function within the scene is to unearth a suggested conflict between two of the characters — let’s just say, when someone says “How’s your wife?” it usually means more than a casual inquiry. There’s an obvious form of subtlety at work that’s not so much a thread that turns into a trip wire as a clearly visible land mine. We’ve been waiting for this kind of explosion, both the literal and metaphorical, for the entire film. When it arrives though, the moment registers less than a whimper.

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