Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015, Greece
Six men on a fishing trip soon escalate their barely repressed competitiveness into a contest to see “who is best”. Not “the best” at any one thing, but the best in general. The prize is a Chevalier ring.
Once, during a lull in party I was attending, a lady I had never met before bounded up to me and said “What are you talking about? Man things?” Well, other gentlemen and I had been comparing notes on the bands of our youth and, although we were not competitive, I imagine our nerdy attention to detail was something along the lines of what she was imagining. Indeed, one of the chief gags in ‘Chevalier’ is how the men constantly jot in their notebooks about others, treating everything obsessively and with the utmost seriousness, because everything is an extension of their masculinity or masculine opinion. Which is serious. And this is long before they battle it out over flat packs.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s deadpan satire creates an enclosed idyllic world – on a yacht in the Aegean Sea – where the men can indulge in their childish competitiveness under the guise of intellectual pursuit to their hearts content. To its credit, these men are not just laughable braggarts; for example, one can imagine an American rendition where the men are absurd cartoons, man-children to a fault and only kept in check by nagging women. Although there is undoubtedly some of that to these guys, it’s not the total hinge of their personalities. The screenplay – written by Tsangari with Efthymis Filippou, writer on ‘The Lobster’, ‘Alps’ and ‘Dogtooth’ – colours in the men so that they are not solely ridiculous, mean, petty, etc., but complex characters that can’t help their vulnerabilities and insecurities from showing and can’t find the spaces to express these elements. And this despite the fact that there isn’t much exposition or back-story. They are in general successful people, making their antagonisms and insecurities more to do with gender and age than class. They will brandish erections to show they can still get-it-up and demote others for drooling when they sleep, for example; they will criticise because they can, because that is what you do when in charge – indeed, being critical of others is how you stay on top. But however mean the men are, there is no sense that film is itself mean, but rather just giving these men room to implicate themselves.
There is a clean, unfussy formalism – crisply filmed by ChristosKaramanis – that doesn’t allow excess to blow up into melodrama: deadpan is the mood. Indeed, so superficially earnest is the presentation that some may miss the joke – the curse of deadpan – but it is this earnestness that makes it very funny and cutting, mocking the seriousness of the men’s petty rivalry which is of no consequence, which is indulged in because that’s what men do. The male cast plunge into this with gusto, happily baring all and looking ridiculous whilst still proffering an air of superiority. If you tend to see macho posturing as inherently funny (and it’s dangerous too, but that’s another film) then perhaps this one gag will be enough and certainly Tsangari finds several angles – “Your syntax is shit. And your penis is very, very small.” - even before it tops it all with an outburst of karaoke with Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’.