Like her Greek contemporary Yorgos Lanthimos, director Athina Rachel Tsangari has an unorthodox sense of humor. As leading figures of what The Guardian termed “The Weird Wave of Greek Cinema“, they have delivered some of the most unusual premises and characters to the big screen. That trend continues in Tsangari’s latest film “Chevalier,” an unusual buddy comedy designed like an arthouse chamber piece.
Set almost entirely at sea, “Chevalier” follows a group of men on a fishing trip off the coast of Greece. These six mostly middle-aged men head out on a luxury yacht, fully equipped with all the amenities for a relaxing retreat. Their days mainly involve going out diving and fishing, followed by a fancy dinner prepared by their on board chef. But during one such evening, things get out of hand as an innocent game is misinterpreted. Soon enough, an argument escalates into a battle of egos. But the debate isn’t settled, and a competition is then declared to determine who is the “Best in General.” No stones are left unturned in this subsequent search to crown the alpha male, who will win the honor of wearing the Chevalier ring.
From quite early in the film, Tsangari shows impressive insight into the nature of male interactions. Long before the inciting dinner game, the men have already begun sizing each other up. Returning from a dive, they compare how deep they dove and the size of the fish they caught. Though subtle, it’s a foreshadowing of the events to come.
Indeed, the competitiveness gets progressively overt as the Chevalier competition unfolds. But Tsangari largely avoids outrageous shenanigans, favoring a more mature approach as befitting her characters (among them a doctor, an insurance agent and two businessmen). Rather than displaying feats of athleticism or bravery, the men score each other based on health checkups, cleaning races, phone ringtones and other peculiar assessments.
Admittedly, these activities turn out to be just as mundane as you would expect. Those expecting characters like the Johnny Knoxvilles of the world will therefore be sorely disappointed. For others, the screenplay’s deadpan absurdity should be a refreshing change of pace.
The comedy gets broader as the competition nears its conclusion, however, even resorting to a literal dick measuring contest. Still, Tsangari plays it not as vulgar hilarity, but as a sad depiction of bruised egos and how pathetic men can be. And through intimate scenes of private conversations between individual pairings, their deep insecurities are revealed.
With “Chevalier,” Tsangari provides a strong critique of masculinity. But one gets the sense that an even more effective satire lies within its premise. Eschewing wacky characters – the exception being a wimpy schlub desperate to prove his mettle – and bold comic set pieces, she loses sight of the extremism that defines the masculine ideal associated with bro movies. In one scene, a character proposes a blood oath, for which he is criticized for going over the top. This small glimpse of danger is a telling indicator of the film’s restraint. And ultimately, it makes you wish the film had been just a little more adventurous.
“Chevalier” is now available on DVD and VOD from Strand Releasing.
“Chevalier” is the Greek submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.