European Union Film Festival 2016: Chevalier, by Aaron Pinkston
I’m not sure if the new wave of films coming out of Greece has been formally synthesized, but a small group of filmmakers have made some very interesting cinema lately. Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth, Alps, and the upcoming The Lobster has (rightfully) gotten most of the attention, but his frequent collaborator Athina Rachel Tsangari is an important figure as well. Tsangari is most known for her 2010 film Attenberg, an appropriately weird (for Greek cinema) but emotionally resonant film. Her follow up, Chevalier, may not be as outwardly bizarre as its counterparts, but it is just as committed to its high-concept premise. Chevalier may also be the most accessible film in this recent run—though given the standard, I’m not sure if that might not be a compliment.
Chevalier takes place during a fishing vacation between six longtime friends and business partners. On their return, after disputed results playing an abstract guessing game, one of the men suggests a contest called “Chevalier,” where each participant proposes a game of physical or mental skill with an ultimate champion crowned by ring. Another raises the stakes for a game of “The Best in General,” where all are judged on literally anything and everything. Naturally, the six men become dangerously invested in the game, which ultimately escalates to an unhealthy place.
In a self-regulated competition to find out who is the unequivocal best, each man’s imperfections are magnified to the point of savagery. Every conversation, even the friendliest discussion on how to properly prepare calamari, is infused with subtext of the competition. You can never tell how genuine the players are being at any given point or what weaknesses they are hunting to exploit—jotting down notes in little notebooks becomes a running exercise for the competitors after every possible observation.
From the film’s standpoint, there could be an impulse to present this game in a more structured way, but Tsangari never bites. There could be intertitles marking a competition or an effort to show contests in their entirety. Chevalier is kept more loose and unpredictable—there are moments when a competition is clearly taking place, but it’s not always so obvious. Generally, it’s not important who is succeeding in the game, though specific results (usually failures) do mean something for the characters.
The closest we get to a running scoreboard are delightful scenes involving the yacht’s crew. The staff gab on the events, giving predictions and opinions on who is leading. They become so invested in the game that they themselves begin intensely judging each other. This is an unexpected play on the upstairs-downstairs narrative that also helps the audience digest what is going on in the film.
Of course, the game works as a deconstruction of these particular characters and their relationships, but also says something about general masculinity. Chevalier attempts to get at the nature of the “dick measuring contest,” quite literally in one competition (you knew it was gonna go there). The participants aren’t a diverse cross-section of men (all are notably white and have at least moderate wealth), though they do devolve in a way that is culturally typical of the machismo stereotype. Still, each in the ensemble is a distinct character and builds throughout the film. There is one outlier in the group, only on the trip to tag along with his brother and not allowed to go diving. Unlike the others, he is far from the alpha male type, all too eager to please the others for the smallest amount of acceptance. This character gets a few moments that his lack of ego and willingness to be the clown work in his favor—I won’t say whether he wins the competition in the end, though he no doubt surprises.
Chevalier is incredibly funny and light on its feet. Though a deeper sociological experiment in embedded within the game structure, it is simply entertaining to watch these characters take the competition so seriously. As with most any reality television or sporting event, the game’s inner-workings, twists and turns trigger particular pleasure centers. Nimbly edited, showing precisely enough of the most mundane competitions, the film moves quickly. Tsangari shows that she is every bit as talented a storyteller as the more acclaimed Lanthimos—out of his shadow as another of the most exciting European filmmakers working today.