Film of the week: Chevalier

Mean men: Athina Rachel Tsangari’s feminist portrait of men without women is a dark satire of the neoliberal games we must play.

Erika Balsom
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Petty, narcissistic, vain, manipulative: certain adjectives tend to be attached to women much more frequently than to men, a sure symptom of a misogyny as pervasive as it is under-acknowledged. And yet all might apply to the men of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s brilliant Chevalier, a film about six friends on an octopus-fishing trip aboard a luxury yacht in the Aegean who compete to determine which among them is “the best in general”. Whether out of boredom, malice or some combination of the two, they gamify their holiday so as to both formalise and justify the selfish competitiveness that infuses their interactions, while the servants look on and discuss the proceedings. With a deadpan tenor and steely palette, Tsangari pivots away from the well-trodden territory of mean girls to cast her gaze instead on these mean boys.

The result? Like Claire Denis’s otherwise very different Beau travail (1999), in its interrogation of masculinity and homosocial relationships, Chevalier emerges as that fascinating and seemingly paradoxical thing: a feminist film in which women are virtually absent from the screen.

Like the girl gangs of countless films, each man in Chevalier occupies a delineated position in the social landscape. The Doctor delights in his patriarchal authority, lording it over his son-in-law Yannis and younger colleague Christos, both of whom have romantic entanglements with his daughter Anna. Long-haired Joseph is generally insouciant, seeming to care little about any aspect of the game other than the size of his erection, while his business partner Yorgos is the classical unmarked protagonist, the Carrie of the group in Sex and the City terms. The corpulent, somewhat infantile Dimitris, a lip-synching rock collector who lives with his mother, fulfils the requisite role of pitied outcast.

Though occasionally the men participate in ‘mini-challenges’, to use the language of reality television, a key premise of Chevalier is that there is no outside to the game. Absolutely every interaction and habit can be subject to scrutiny. The men examine their sagging stomachs, unflaggingly monitor each other’s behaviour and purposefully undermine the self-confidence of their supposed friends. Judgements are never delivered directly but implied through passive-aggressive remarks and privately recorded in tiny notebooks.

Chevalier (2015)

Despite Chevalier’s clear concern with gender, its skewering of masculinity is perhaps less important than its broader social satire. Beyond its interest in dick measuring as both metaphor and literal activity, the film uses the limited setting of the yacht to stage a dark, absurdist send-up of the pathologies of 21st-century selfhood.

Though frequently hilarious, Chevalier’s vision of a quantified life of incessant surveillance and punishing self-improvement leaves little to laugh about. Like last year’s The Lobster (with which it shares a co-writer, Efthymis Filippou), Chevalier proposes a scathing indictment of contemporary life through a highly contrived, claustrophobic situation. As Hitchcock recognised in Lifeboat (1944), the ship is a space apart, one with close historical ties to the development of capitalism, and possessing a special allegorical power to expose how life is governed at large. Whereas The Lobster pointed to the deep ambivalence of the monogamous couple as a basic societal unit, Chevalier targets neoliberalism’s demand for omnicompetence, its obsession with metrics and its spurious injunction that we must not just tolerate capital’s complete subsumption of life but find it enjoyable and fun, like a game.

Yorgos is awarded the prize of a signet ring following a rehearsed speech in which he declares that he feels he has already won. When one’s personality is but a product on the market of individualism, such a self-validating proclamation is perhaps the most winning gesture of all. But much earlier, Joseph had both predicted and deflated this ending, telling Yorgos, “You’ll win, but you won’t actually win anything. Even if you win, it doesn’t mean you’re the best in general.”

Chevalier (2015)

Indeed, to name the winner is no kind of spoiler, a fact that Tsangari underlines in a masterful final sequence. Faces remain out of frame when the ring is awarded, and little attention is given to revealing the identity of the Chevalier in the darkness of the pier. Blink and miss it.

This strategic lack of emphasis makes way for the film’s true culmination: the servants have initiated their own game of Chevalier. Solidifying the film’s allegorical dimension, this concluding scene foregrounds the question of class within a narrative dominated by conspicuous affluence. Here, too, Chevalier’s suggestion is damning: the working classes reproduce the behaviours of the privileged, even when such attitudes are toxic and undoubtedly against their own interests. Perhaps fishing for octopus would have been a better idea.

 

In the August 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

Funny games

A group of men on a fishing trip on a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea decide to have a competition to determine which of them is the best in Chevalier, Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s witty, affectionate satire of modern masculinity. By Adam Nayman.

 

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  • Sight & Sound: the August 2016 issue

    Sight & Sound: the August 2016 issue

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