Film Review: Chevalier

A droll, deadpan Greek portrait of men at their most buffoonishly competitive.
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Men’s competitive egos are contemplated—in drolly critical fashion—in Chevalier, Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s portrait of the male character in all its petty, pitiful, cutthroat absurdity. Tsangari’s story opens on a swanky yacht somewhere in the Aegean Sea, aboard which six friends are spending a leisurely getaway of deep-sea spear fishing. The fact that insurance salesman Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) immediately lies to his comrades about his fish-catching prowess speaks to their interest in puffing up their own stature. Similarly, his shipmates’ quiet recognition of his lie reveals them to be a judgmental lot, prone to assessing their friends’ every triumph and failing—and, in the process, calculating their own standing in this clique.

The sextet’s spirited rapport peaks when, after squabbling over an after-dinner game, they decide to embark on a competition to see who’s “The Best In General”—a title that will be determined by grading one another in every imaginable way. Consequently, no conversation between the Doc (Yiorgos Kendros), Christos (Sakis Rouvas), Yorgos (Panos Koronis), Josef (Vangelis Mourikis), and Yannis—who’s married to the Doc’s daughter, and has brought his shlubby brother Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) along for the trip—is merely a casual affair. Rivalry permeates the air, and soon these men are not only none-too-subtly evaluating everything the others are up to, but are initiating increasingly lunatic matches—from racing to see who can build a bookshelf the fastest on the ship’s deck, to taking each other’s blood and then comparing their cholesterol levels, to (in Josef’s case) demonstrating how well his below-the-belt equipment operates.

Before long, these clowns are even jotting everything down in notebooks, though the beauty of Chevalier’s script—co-written by Efthymis Filippou, frequent collaborator of another off-kilter Greek auteur (and Tsangari collaborator), The Lobster’s Yorgos Lanthimos—is that it gradually divulges details about its characters and the ways in which their lives are intertwined. The result is that the film entices by stoking one’s sense of curiosity about both the outcome of their competition, and also about what sort of men would be driven to partake in it in the first place. That Tsangari’s protagonists are a somewhat wacko bunch lends the material its comedic zing, and yet the director doesn’t treat them as cartoonish caricatures, instead imbuing them with enough recognizable humanity to lend weight to her examination of the psychological impulses that underscore their unhinged I’m-better-than-you behavior.

Tsangari’s off-center compositions accentuate the overarching bizarreness of interpersonal male dynamics, just as her visual emphasis on reflective surfaces speaks to her characters’ interest in (self-)analysis. By the time the ship’s three-man staff has been infected with a kindred desire to determine which of them is the finest, Chevalier has cemented itself as a playfully scathing inquiry into men’s inherent urge to prove their unimpeachable primacy over (supposed) adversaries. And as with Dimitris’ feminine lip-sync rendition of “Loving You” and Christos’ to-the-mirror outburst about his fat thighs, it also functions as a study of male anxieties and conflicts that’s been rendered in amusing, and ultimately ambiguous, gender role-reversal form.

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