Chevalier Film Critique Essay
How do you measure the worth of a man? This question becomes the impetus for Chevalier, the new feature length film from Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari. Set on a yacht journeying to Athens, a group of male friends decide to play a game involving a variety of contests to determine the answer. Weighing in the balance is their sense of identity, which is twisted and disturbed as their contests become increasingly personal. The searing burn of this promise never quite comes to fruition, as the film never fails to build on the tension of the first act.
Masculinity has been the love-theme of this year’s edition of Locarno, and Chevalier further indulges in the dank impulses and fragility of the male ego. Admirably, the film doesn’t fall into broad stereotypes, preferring to suggest we will all fall apart, regardless of gender under the wrong circumstances. The range of judgement that the group engages in reaches into every aspect of their lives, from how high they wear their pants to how quickly and efficiently they can assemble Ikea furniture. The question of virtue is meticulously deconstructed through their game until little is left but the shell of their disappointment. To be anything less than perfect becomes tied to the fall of the family, the economy and the country: this is not just a simple game.
The richness of the film’s themes cannot overcome the weakness of the story. A charming and ironic sense of humour makes up for a lot of deficiencies but can do little to make up for the fact that the film has no forward momentum. While ego is always a great motivator, it isn’t enough to sustain the game. The characters hang in a sort of oblivion, with the action never reaching much deeper than adolescent antics. The actors can only do so much with the material, which never seems to escalate into anything truly unnerving. While the broadest metaphor, perhaps the best of their contests is to determine who has the biggest penis. Although this has obviously been a dick-measuring contest from the onset, the sheer joy where one of the men gets an erection (after a lot of struggle and heartache) is a rather exceptional moment in contemporary cinema. Call me a pervert, but I’d like to see more “beautiful erections” in cinema — in particular if they work so well within the confines of the film, as it does here.
Optimistically, I’d suggest that Chevalier fulfills the demands of Locarno, a festival that prefers challenging films over ones that come in a careful package. Chevalier is not easy because it doesn’t live up to expectations and does not fulfill our cathartic desire for closure. Yet, there are certainly some poor decisions involved, in particular during the film’s final act. Chevalier has definite clarity issues as many walk away unclear of the final winner — this does not seem to be purposefully obscured but rather poorly articulated by the filmmakers.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.
Categories: 2015, 2015 Film Reviews, Film Festivals, Film Reviews, Justine A. Smith, Locarno, Staff Writers
Tagged as: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Chevalier, Justine A. Smith, Locarno International Film Festival
Male vanity, a trait so widespread that it’s rarely if ever acknowledged, gets a funny albeit ultimately not terribly consequential skewering in this dry comedy from Greece. “Chevalier” is the third fictional feature from writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari; her 2010 “Attenberg,” an antic exploration of national identity and misandry, made waves on the festival circuit. She’s also an associate of “The Lobster” director Yorgos Lanthimos.
Tsangari wrote the script for this picture with Efthymis Filippou, a regular collaborator of Lanthimos’, but while I found “The Lobster” almost insufferably snide and smug, “Chevalier” plays its cards closer to the vest, in a sense. The movie opens with a shot of men in diving suits emerging from the sea, flopping up from the water horizontally like whales getting beached. They are a well-off party of six on a private yacht, diving for fish; their leader and ostensible host is a lean, elderly man (Yiorgos Kendros) referred to only as “The Doctor,” or “Doc,” or other diminutives. The other fellows are younger—various shades of middle age, or approaching middle age. A couple are handsome, a couple are hirsute. At first one most notices the lowest man on the totem pole of six (there are a couple of staff members on the boat too, and they eventually constitute a social microcosm of their own), the short, dumpy, bearded Dimitris (Makis Papadimitrou), a down-in-the-mouth wimp who would likely be a perfect fit for Zach Galifianakis in the unlikely event this film were to be remade in Hollywood. Eventually we get to focus on the other not-quite-types, such as Yorgos, the kind of menschy one (played by Panos Koronis, who, along with director Tsangari, had a small role in Richard Linklater’s Greece-set “Before Midnight” in 2013) and Christo (Sakis Rouvas), the kind of studly one. The fellows, with the exception of Dimitris, who’s not allowed in the water, compare the sizes of their catches, and that’s all well and good for the daytime. In the evening, they’re bored, and sourly try to come up with games to play. No one is any good at cards. “I do not play Trivial Pursuit,” one of them says with exaggerated hauteur when that game is suggested. Finally, one of them suggests a competition in Everything. That is, they will concoct a series of contest, en masse, and each one will be scored. At the end of the series, the winner will be bestowed the Chevalier signet ring of the title.
This does the trick to the extent that the fellows all decide to extend their stay. The fellows assign each other peculiar tasks. There’s a cleaning contest, in which one of the guys gets a shellacking on account of shoddy work polishing the silver. There’s an Ikea assemblage competition. There is, as you might have expected, a penis-measuring contest. (It is handled with visual discretion, in case you were worried and/or titillated.) As you might expect, things start to get a little tense. Not just because the contests are ridiculous, and the decided-upon scoring regulations are risibly Byzantine, but also because, you know … boys will be boys.
Tsangari shoots the fellows’ antics in a studiously anti-heroic fashion, often placing the camera in voyeur-like positions, with a piece of the yacht’s incidental hardware intruding into the foreground of the frame. Christos Karamanis’ cinematography is almost the opposite of picturesque: some scenes are practically drained of color. As if the behavior of the characters themselves were not sufficiently deflating of their macho pretensions.
There are laughs and uncomfortable observations throughout, but Tsangari never lays on too heavy a hand. One is free to contemplate the allegorical and satirical implications, but also free to enjoy the spectacle of self-imposed insecurity that plays out among these characters. By keeping things compact, the movie honors its premise modestly but with exemplary articulation. “Chevalier” is an intelligent and dry entertainment that might also make a very telling date movie.