In 2000, Claire Denis made Beau Travail, a heart-rendingly beautiful film on men and their impossible quest for male perfection. The unpredictable landscapes of Djibouti and the harsh regiments of the French Foreign Legion put masculinity to test: boys have to become men and men sweat, hit, compete, and kill. In Chevalier, director Athina Rachel Tsangari somehow explores the same theme of struggle in the midst of financial crisis and political unrest through a playful game that helps six friends to determine “the best in general.” The six gentlemen, along with three crewmembers, never meant to obtain the coveted status of tragic heroes, are dangerously competitive yet they are so full of life, warmth, and humanity that the audience cannot help feeling reassured that these characters will survive and be alright. (PS: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Peier Shen
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third feature, Chevalier, exuberates with boyish charm. The six mostly middle-aged, middle-class Greek men (a noble doctor, his envious son-in-law, his son-in-law’s harmless cousin, the doctor’s ambitious junior partner, and two gentle and loving old friends of the doctor) are on their vacation: dining, diving, swimming, fishing, and playing in the dead of winter. One night, bored of their normal nightly activities, they decide to play “chevalier.” The meaning behind the name of the game is two-fold: first, “chevalier” stands for the signet ring that “the best in general” will wear; secondly, “chevalier,” heavily connoted with knighthood ideals, is foremost a gentlemen’s game for power and honor.
Throughout the film, all the characters scrutinize each other down to the most minuscule details – how they dress, how they eat, and how they talk to their partners – in order to contest to become the best. Some are delightfully absurd as the gentlemen observe and judge how each man sleeps; their posture, their underwear, and their breath are all subjected to evaluations. Others verge on Freudianism as the characters seriously ponder over the impressiveness of each other’s erections. Then there is another group of men, the three crewmembers, comically observe, comment, critique, and imitate their masters.
The film is Ms. Tsangari’s second attempt at situational drama, the first one being her short film The Capsule, which explores emerging womanhood with seven female characters, confined in a mansion on a Cycladic rock. Here again, mostly taking place on a yacht, Chevalier, joining a group of films such as 12 Angry Men, resembles theatre. The profuse dialogues are spontaneous; the chemistry among characters, heartfelt and natural.
The successful portrayals of these vivid characters owes to Ms. Tsangari’s meticulous attention to her actors. The filmmaker spent nine months casting her characters; then the cast and crew spent a significant amount of time together filming in the middle of nowhere. The camaraderie developed among actors and filmmakers alike is effortlessly transferred onto the screen. The editing process is also surprisingly democratic as all the actors voted for the games that appear in the final film.
Despite the apparent joy, a sense of violence never totally dissipates; the sea seems ominous: each wave, with its roaring intensity, threatens to devour the characters and drive them mad. By daringly fragmentizing the main subjects such as the boat and the characters, Ms. Tsangari’s frame dwells upon nature – the bare cliff, the cold stones, and most importantly, the unhinged sea. Thus the midsummer dream of Athens, traditionally presented to Hollywood lovers, is replaced by Ms. Tsangari’s mischievous winter that can be whimsical and cruel. Such energy affects the camera movement. Marking a clear departure from traditional practices such as shot reverse shot, Ms. Tsangari’s sense aesthetic is noted for its spontaneity, her camera moving freely like waves to capture close-ups of her characters. This sense of ambiguity suggests danger – all the characters might lose everything in their seemingly innocent game, but the source of the impending despair is unclear. Regrettably, Ms. Tsangari’s obvious attempt at metaphors for contemporary Greek politics lacks rigor and precision.
What will happen when the melancholic song “Let It Be Me” stops and a low hum of the impatient wind and the waves takes over? What lies beyond the empty harbor, lit by the city lights? The audience can only hope that the game “chevalier” helps the characters cope with the harsh sociopolitical reality that awaits them.
© Peier Shen FF2 Media (5/30/16)
Top Photo: "Yorgos" (Panos Koronis) seeks a moment of privacy in the claustrophobic confines of a luxury yacht.
Middle Photo: The doctor’s junior partner "Christos" (Sakis Rouvas) video chats his wife and possibly reveals his foot fetish.
Bottom Photo: Six buddies display their catch of the day on a fishing excursion.
Photo Credits: Despina Spyrou
Q: Does Chevalier pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Chevalier, a film on masculinity, does not pay particular attention to women and that seems okay. Examining the male psyche, Ms. Tsangari’s deliberate neglect of women is more than telling and appropriate.