Chevalier – Sarajevo 21
Athina Rachel Tsangari tries to find Who’s the Best in General with a deadpan odd satire that dismantles masculinity and makes Greek Weird Wave to go feel-good. Special Jury Mention at the 21st Sarajevo Film Festival.
Greek Weird Wave Goes (almost) Feel-good, this could be the tagline for Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third feature film Chevalier. Despite the fact that Tsangari had recently directed two shorts – The Capsule (2012) and 24 Frames Per Century (2013) – it’s been nearly five years since her previous feature, Venice awarded Attenberg (2010). The director returns with an odd deadpan comedy that wants to be playful too. Chevalier had its world premiere at the 68th Locarno Film Festival and won the Special Jury Mention and the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Actor(s) at the 21st Sarajevo Film Festival.
A weird group of six men is going for a winter fishing trip on a yacht. A mature upper-class highbrow Doctor (Yiorgos Kendros), his insecure son-in-law Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) along with his awkwardly sensitive brother Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), doctor’s assistant Christos (Sakis Rouvas) who’s obsessed with his physical appearance, their common friend and presumptuous alpha-male Yorgos (Panos Koronis) and his amusingly eccentric business partner Josef (Vangelis Mourikis). On their way back, the yacht will face some mechanical problems so they will be trapped in a gulf close to their homes. To kill some time, they decide to play a competitive game called Chevalier, the winner will be the one who’s “The Best in General” and no one wants to lose.
Tsangari creates an all-male film that tries to explore the depths of masculine competitiveness as it seen by a purely female, and sometimes even feminist, point of view. Her heroes could represent all the male stereotypes, even if they are not easily recognizable from the very beginning. As the story evolves, they need to dismantle and alter their personalities and even be somehow humiliated as they execute unusual and sometimes humoristic competitions. The importance and the difficulty could vary, from who is best in housecleaning or tooth brushing to who has the best sleeping position or erection. Chevalier for them is not just another game, it is the only way to support their social status, their career, even their manhood, so conflicts are ready to emerge. That of course doesn’t make the film a “macho” experience. On the contrary, the feminine perspective surpasses the masculine clichés and offers an unconventional and lesser expected result. Tsangari tries to break some of the boundaries as she offers some unexpected – and in contradiction to their sex – anxieties to her heroes.
On a second level, these six people are representing different – upper and middle – social classes and their game, or battle, is just a reflection of a society that remains secluded and is forced to interact by being enclaved in a limited space for an unknown period of time. This is exactly where Chevalier’s catch is. Your enemies are those who should judge and award who’s the best. So inevitably there’s no objectivity in that judgmental process and the winner can never be sure if he’s better than the others. It’s not a game of excellency and it doesn’t follow any undisrupted procedure, it’s actually a recognition of supremacy. Chevalier depicts a rally that is purely based on subjectivity and where common sense is completely absent. Could that be a representation of social clashes in Greece? Probably it could be interpreted as that, but the film doesn’t forcefully drive the viewer towards this assumption.
The script was co-written by Tsangari and Yorgos Lanthimos’ regular collaborator Efthimis Filippou (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster) who clearly shows his talent in creating witty and whimsically fast-paced scenes. Chevalier is heavily based on its screenplay and the dialogues give a strange openness to a film that has such a limited space to use. Tsangari’s excellent rhythm also help towards that direction as she leaves the story and the acts to breath in most of the cases. Since this is a very fragile procedure, sometimes the result may seem a bit unbalanced. The introduction is a bit more prolonged that is actually needed, some of the situations during the competitions could be slightly repetitive and there are certain moments where the climaxes don’t fulfill the initial high expectations. It should be of course mentioned that everything takes place in a claustrophobic environment and this is quite risky as it can’t always work in film’s advantage.
The cast is also a bit “weird” and even unmatched as it is composed by cinema, theatrical and TV actors, a director and a pop star, although this theoretical incompatibility doesn’t really appear on screen. Chevalier’s ensemble keeps up with the rhythm and follows precisely this satire in disguise. Tsangari had a difficult task but she succeeds to take the best of each of her protagonists and by hiding any possible weaknesses she keeps everyone on a similar level. There are of course some certain highs and lows or some more demanding scenes but overall they can all meet and perform at the same frequency something which is extremely important especially when there are no external factors that could affect the final result. Taking into account that sometimes the dialogues are minimal, everything is based on body language, facial expressions and cast’s natural performance. Chevalier is an evident comedy of characters and it is positive that everyone supports his own distinctive role.
So Who’s the Best in General? The answer doesn’t really matter and actually there is no need to be disclosed. As the heroes play Chevalier, the viewers can also participate to this nonconformist odd game and feel relieved or scared that the same paradoxical story could easily end up as a horror.