While sailing a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea, six men, associated with each other by work or family, decide to play a game of who is “the best in general.” The group’s composed of seemingly disparate yet wholly indistinguishable men - the only qualities identifying them are their jobs and strange array of quirks. However, they’re wholly equipped to judge each other from everything to their choice of sleeping trunks to their silver-shining techniques. This is Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third feature-length film Chevalier (2015): a relentlessly deadpan comedy that observes the male ego with a scientific detachment and rigidness. It’s simultaneously thought-provoking, cringe-inducing and deeply hilarious.
In order to play their game, these men engage in the most ridiculously hyper-specific competitions. From who can build an IKEA shelf the fastest to who can skip the most pebbles in a row, Chevalier showcases some bizarre and darkly humorous scenarios. On top of that, the men also keep a handy ledger on them at all times, scribbling notes on every interaction they have one another. One of the film’s best moments is watching the group of men judge how each of them interacts with their loved ones over the phone, taking down notes as one man navigates a calculated phone call. This lambastic form of scrutiny results in the most eye-rolling of prizes: a ring that only one man will be able to sport by the end of their vacation on the sea. They compete in their ridiculous game with the utmost scientific seriousness. Therein lies the humor; Tsangari explores the absurdity of the male ego through these idiosyncratic, hollow characters and satirizes their convoluted ideas of “the modern man” in the process.
With no shot out of place, Chevalier almost feels too perfectly constructed - as if the men strive to reach the level of perfection the filmic style presents. Tsangari builds upon this absurdist style with a leering and quiet camera that hangs onto shots longer than it probably should. Aesthetically, the camera finds beautifully-composed, symmetrical angles to frame the stifled dialogue sequences in, giving the film a medical, cold disposition. Tsangari composes wide angles in the tightest of cabin spaces, giving interior shots all of the claustrophobia without any of the intimacy. It’s quite the juggling act. Even the exteriors, with expansive seas and rocky fixtures populating the background, achieve that same sense of confinement. This particular visual style also aids in creating what seems like an insular universe - the only space in which this farcical game could ever take place. Chevalier’s about the inane pursuit of perfection and the camera remains detached yet quietly judgmental of the actions taking place. It’s somehow both mythological and mundane.
Since the film’s characters seem to no have no actual amount of decency or true personality (except the sweet, chubby one who’s obsessed with pebbles), Chevalier threatens to veer into tedium in its second half. Though amusing, Chevalier remains calm and mundane even when characters fly off the handle. Since these men are not actually capable of change (or god forbid an actual character arc), Chevalier can begin to feel a little pointless. Really, the film’s just a series of bizarre competitions, one after another. However, the film’s climax involves a lip-sync sequence straight from David Lynch heaven: a dreamy, hilarious jettison from the film’s purposefully droll structure into something fantastical and genuinely surprising. The fight enacted directly afterwards is just the icing on the cake. But still, nothing’s revealed or learned from Chevalier. To be honest, it doesn’t really shed any actual light on the male ego, or competitive spirit, or the modern bourgeoisie. Instead, Tsangari gives us a nihilistic, deeply cruel, and oddly distant dive into a strange world not so different than the one we live in - and, under the perfect circumstances, a game that most of us would want to play.
In the last decade, Greece has established itself as one of the leading sites for envelope-pushing, forward-thinking filmmaking. Yorgos Lanthimos achieved critical success with his allegorical black comedy Dogtooth in 2010 and has become the figurehead of a movement deemed the “Greek Weird Wave” in critical circles. Films under the Greek Weird Wave camp seem concerned with philosophical ideas rather than straight-forward character studies, a thematic precedent that pushes the black comedy into a startling new territory. Overall, Greek Weird Wave tends to have absurdist, stilted dialogue; despicable, idiosyncratic characters; a cold, subdued visual style; and a preoccupation with human behavior under stringent circumstances. Chevalier has all of this in spades, while still remaining a unique, must-watch entry in the growing canon of Greek Weird Wave filmmaking.
Kirk Van Sickle