Like so many males of the species, Chevalier presents itself as being far more respectable than it actually is. The primary characters are six well-paid men, and the setting is a luxury yacht off the coast of the Aegean Sea, so it looks upscale from the start. And Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari—who recently served as both a guest lecturer and a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard University, where she also curated two exceptional repertory programs on “furious” ’70s cinema—has an upscale sense of aesthetics to match. She utilizes medium-length and close-up shots most often, letting them play out for relatively elongated periods. She makes frequent use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces to complicate her compositions, especially when she pulls her camera back farther than usual. And she sets the color palette in shades of blue and gray, as if to cast an artfully ominous cloud over each frame (the cinematography is by Christos Karamanis). These are techniques you often see at the artplex—the kind you might find, say, in a wartime drama produced somewhere in Europe. But Tsangari has applied them to an even more ruthless form of combat. She’s using these techniques to document a dick-measuring contest.
Before they can compare sizes, the men need a little foreplay. So Tsangari’s allegorical comedy begins as a gentle riff on gym culture, with the sextet—composed of brothers Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) and Dimitris (Makis Papdimitriou), business partners Josef (Vangelis Mourikis) and Christos (Sakis Rouvas), friend Yorgos (Panos Koronis), and a respected elder known only as the Doctor (Yorgos Kendros)—both complimenting and chastising one another on their physical traits. The Doctor is commended for his notable stamina. Dimitris is mocked for his inability to hold his breath. All this competitive ribbing gets made official when they start the measuring. But given that they are supposedly men of dignity, the six come up with a more acceptable concept to mask their intentions. They choose to dub their game “The Best in General,” and they set the rules as follows:
- For the duration of their yachting trip, each of the six men can be judged and scored on any behavior they engage in (including their posture, their diction, and—of course—the size of their penis. Sample dialogue: “Your syntax is shit and your dick is very, very small”).
- Each of the men is to keep his own scorecard in a personal notebook, awarding points and marking demerits however he sees fit.
- Whoever finishes the venture with the most combined points will receive the Doctor’s chevalier ring to commemorate the victory—having once been used to signify a high level of chivalry, the object will now be granted to the least pathetic of six uniformly insecure men.
This is a high concept, but the movie is kept muted to a low rumble. Tsangari is more of an absurdist than she is a satirist, so the jokes come from off-rhythm moments as opposed to punchlines. One man is spied making out with his wife via webcam. Another player compulsively collects pebbles, hoping to find some that take the shape of a sphere. In other words, he’s looking for perfect balls. There’s a justified overuse of phallic imagery. One contest sees the men rushing to assemble upright IKEA shelves—seeing who among them can “get it up” the fastest. As soon as that contest is over, the film cuts to a bunch of eggplants. Everything in the film is about chopping those eggplants up. The funniest such incident is probably the recurring shots of all these big men writing down scores with their little pencils. They look like big league baseball scouts outfitted with Little League equipment.
As is so often the case with overcompensating men, we grant them our interest out of a perversely fascinated pity. Tsangari, who also co-wrote the script (with Efthimis Filippou), is even less impressed. The film often constructs scenes that ask why we lavish our attention on the puffed-chest crowd. The ship’s low-class crew takes an interest in making predictions about the game’s outcome, which immediately connects Chevalier to sports, politics, and most other fields where men are paid way too much and talked about way too often. The six characters themselves immediately set to work forming alliances and asking one another to consider their respective faults as secrets—which are, of course, base elements of contemporary masculine psychology. This is a “guy gang” comedy movie without any patience or pity for the bullshit that comes with guy gangs. It’s Everybody Wants Some!! without the exclamation points.
Everybody Wants Some!! director Richard Linklater has actually worked with Tsangari on more than one occasion—she appears for a moment in Slacker, and then again for a sequence in Before Midnight—and is a noted supporter of her work. (In addition to directing, Tsangari has spent decades around the American independent film scene, including years spent teaching and programming in Austin.) He’s on record saying her work has a “’70s European rigor” to it, and that “she’s trying to provoke as well as entertain.” That’s a quality seen in her Harvard Film Archive programming, where films included Salo (another guy-gang movie!), Even Dwarfs Started Small (which seems a particularly notable influence on this work, but I’ll refrain from indulging that digression), and Blue Collar (which is also about men who transition from friendship to competition to fury—and while it may not literally be European, it’s about as close as American movies get). In the case of Chevalier, her rigor is not incidental. Her men are defined by their inadequacies—by a shitty marriage, or by a perpetually rude demeanor, or by their bad spearfishing, or by their tiny dicks. They’re all comic relief, and her aesthetic sense is the straight man.
One of the men eventually suggests that the group become blood brothers (the cutting of the palms, more ceremonial maleness), but only one of his comrades agrees to join. And that one comrade, being embarrassingly squeamish, would rather cut his backside than the front of his palm. So the pair are left to cement their brotherhood by having one lodge his hand on the other one’s ass. This is a gag that wouldn’t be out of place in a Step Brothers sequel. You can just see John C. Reilly on his hands and knees. Tsangari’s rigor makes for smart cinema. It also makes uneven comedy. Earlier on, one of these two characters lip-synced to Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”—it’s Chevalier’s other blatant moment of ostensibly lowbrow physical humor, and you leave wishing there was more—but it may as well have been “Boats ’N Hoes.” Those two sequences hint at an entirely different Chevalier than the one we’ve seen. Tsangari is sure to find continued success wherever she works. But I’d be curious to see what what would happen if she ditched all the respectability. Maybe she’ll direct a stoner comedy next.
CHEVALIER. NOT RATED. NOW PLAYING AT KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA.