Editor’s Note: Chevalier opens in limited theatrical release today, June 3, 2016.
For most of us, buying a sleek new storage unit is an event. It’s not a high holiday or anything and we probably wouldn’t run to Instagram about it, unless we found ourselves pinned underneath in a tragicomic shelving assembly accident, but it’s an event all the same. For the rich men in Chevalier, the latest feature from Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari, new shelves are just a device to be used in a pointless game, then left behind on the bow of a millionaire’s yacht for the cabin boys — underpaid men in their 40s, actually — to dispose of.
These well-off men, all in various stages of mid-life crises, are enjoying vacation on a yacht in the Aegean Sea, hosted by a rich older doctor (Yorgos Kentros). Already touchy, competitive and awkward around each other, they get into a tiff while playing what should have been a harmless game of assigning animal traits to each other. The eccentric Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) insists that the friendly-faced Josef (Vangelis Mourikis) looks like a panda, and Christos (Sakis Rouvas), the elder doctor’s handsome co-worker, almost explodes in indignation. “A panda of any age is a plump animal,” he complains. “This guy is oblong!”
The humanism and touch of surrealism in Chevalier mark it as another outstanding entry in the Greek Weird Wave.
As a result, the group agrees, a little too quickly, to play a game called “chevalier.” As Christos tells it, each person comes up with a test, such as how quickly they can clean windows or whether they can assemble a lovely shelf from Ikea. The winner of each event is given a chevalier style ring to wear, until they have to pass it on to the next winner of the next contest. Yorgos (Panos Koronis), still irritated at another imagined slight from the animal game, ups the ante by suggesting the group also judge each other on their everyday actions: how they dress, if they snore, what they have for breakfast. Thus begins hilarious and often pathetic displays of power amongst a bunch of regular guys who not-so-secretly believe themselves to be superior to everyone else.
It’s no coincidence that Chevalier, filmed in a country going through a serious economic crisis, focuses on the lives of the wealthy. It’s not a new conceit in underground or avant-garde cinema, but writer-director Tsangari updates the theme by showing us an affluent world that is sleek and attractive rather than overwrought and tacky. Everything in the film is crisp, new, clean, tasteful and, most importantly, monochrome, and the scenery is breathtaking. Chevalier portrays wealth favorably, steering away from the usual assertion that opulence is offensive, acknowledging our own desires for what we see on the screen.
Our aspirational desires inform our reaction to the group’s antics, allowing us to sympathize with a group of people that we’d normally want to see get taken down a peg or two.
In fact, our aspirational desires inform our reaction to the group’s antics, allowing us to sympathize with a group of people that we’d normally want to see get taken down a peg or two. Released from the emotional baggage of resentment, we can appreciate the complexity of the situation when an inevitable humiliation comes. We can also appreciate the humor; one of the best moments in the film is when the least appealing guy in the group drinks a little too much and gets in some real zingers at his wife’s former boyfriend.
The humanism and touch of surrealism in Chevalier mark it as another outstanding entry in the Greek Weird Wave. The characters in Chevalier are more grounded than in Tsangari’s previous feature, however, the fantastic Attenberg (2010). These men are treated with a lighter touch both in the script and visually, as though they were ceramic figurines that could shatter at any second. Their quirks give them character but never strength; they reveal weaknesses but no emotional depth. It’s when the film — and, of course, the characters themselves — are forced to examine individuality as it coexists with those around them that true character is revealed. Charming, funny and unique, Chevalier is a brilliant and affectionate take on masculinity, middle age and male bonding.
Charming, funny and unique, Chevalier, the latest from Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari, is a brilliant and affectionate take on masculinity, middle age and male bonding.