In Athina Rachel Tsangari’s previous feature film, Attenberg (2011), her subject was a young woman who obsessively watched nature documentaries. I imagine she would have enjoyed watching Tsangari’s newest feature, Chevalier, even though it takes as its focus the human animal (more specifically, the cisgender heterosexual bourgeois male). Tsangari shows us these animals in an isolated habitat, afloat on a luxury yacht on the Aegean Sea. Although we certainly get an eyeful of the gorgeous scenery, the emphasis here is always on the relationships and interactions between the human subjects. No protagonist ever really arises out of the group; instead we observe the dynamics of the group as a whole.
The film opens on the group as they dive and fish, then we watch them peel the wetsuits off of each other like a second skin. The image of these men slowly peeling off each other’s skin hangs over the rest of the film, as they begin a contest to decide who is “the best in general”. It seems like an obvious set-up, but Tsangari does not settle into clichéd antics of macho competition. The men do not engage in grandiose feats of athleticism and dick-measuring, but instead study intimate details of each other's habits and abilities, from how well they sleep to how quickly they can assemble a shelf. The competition seeps into all aspects of their lives, vicious judgement causing self-conscious breakdowns due to paranoia of one’s own flaws throughout the film, with one character eventually howling in the night about his “beautiful erection” (okay, so there is some dick-measuring). There are no real winners, just the slow deterioration of delicate egos. I couldn’t help but think of another film about the harm of hypercritical social judgement and with a more direct allusion to nature documentaries, Mean Girls. Here, the action is simply transposed from female high school cliques onto a group of grown men.
Chevalier pairs nicely with another recent feature from a filmmaker lumped in the “Greek Weird Wave”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Both films reveal truths that feel both timeless and contemporary by presenting stories of people navigating complex systems which seem logical to them as they are immediately involved in the social interactions, but absurd to the viewer when compared to the real world. However, while The Lobster creates a bizarre fantasy world of strict rules, Tsangari’s Chevalier only feels slightly removed from reality, with the rules only barely defined to the people desperately trying to follow them. There is an absurdist humour in the central premise and the manner in which the characters act, but the scenario is entirely possible and they always feel human.
This is in large part due to the wonderfully sincere deadpan performances from all of the cast members. Particularly enjoyable is Makis Papadimitriou in the role of one of a tag-along brother, a big awkward teddy-bear. He especially shines while performing a prepared lip sync routine to Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”. It’s a beautiful, warm, and hilarious moment — an offering of humility without fear of looking stupid — and the song he chooses defines his character as someone who wants nothing more than to comfort the other men in a way that none of them will support him. The performance is, of course, quickly forgotten by the other men who become distracted by bickering.
Although the people feel real, the concept and setting always remains somewhat abstract, allowing space for many interpretations. The film could be read as a commentary of the harm done to a society based solely in competition, or a critique of fragile masculinity, or even as a class commentary: the underclass workers on the boat both observe the competition and eventually begin one of their own. Tsangari refuses to make any of these elements of the film too blunt or let the narrative lead to an explosive conclusion, and by doing so, lets the film feel like a parable without the didacticism.
It’s a strong start to the fall season of screenings at Carbon Arc; only time will tell if it will stack up against the upcoming films as “best film in general”.