Sunday 5 August 2018

From the archive: "Chevalier"

One key assumption of the Twittersphere’s #seehernow movement – conceived to raise the visibility of women in film – is that greater numbers of female creatives within the industry will give rise to more rounded representations of women on screen. A corollary might be fresh insight into the ways of men – that male characters, too, would benefit from having a different, possibly less indulgent set of eyes cast over them. It’s a proposal deftly borne out in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a winning curio that sets up an ocean bound Olympiad for those possessed of the XY chromosome.

Here be a ship of fools: six Athenian men of various ages and sizes, on a private diving-and-fishing cruise around the cradle of civilisation. They’re first seen emerging from the sea to shed their wetsuits as primordial creatures once did their skin; the remainder seeks to test just how far they can be said to have evolved. The men are keenest of all to measure themselves, stating and restating their achievements over dinner until some pecking order can be established. I caught the most fish; ah, but I caught the biggest fish; yes, my friend, but I caught the rarest.

To settle the matter, an elder known simply as The Doctor (Yiorgos Kendros) proposes a competition to win both the eponymous ring and the title of “the Best in General”. Anything can be proposed, so long as it can be competed for: highest waistline, best ringtone, most adventurous saladmaker. This viewer was surprised it took them as long as it does to get round to establishing who among the party has the biggest dick – but then, as a guy, I guess I would think like that.

These events are presented in the now-standard gnomic-deadpan fashion of the so-called Greek Weird Wave, origin of the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth and last year’s crossover hit The Lobster. Yet Tsangari pursues her own impeccable logic: inevitably, the men break off from competing to lay bets on the competition’s outcome, inducing further rounds of bickering. With laudable economy, the writer-director sets out a world both so absurd that anything might plausibly happen, and yet strangely familiar – not so far removed from, say, one in which grown men might destroy a country by staging an in-house leadership contest.

The obvious risk is misandry – that the film makes no bigger (or truer) a statement than to dismiss all men as horny, chest-thumping brutes hell-bent on steering everybody back to the Dark Ages, more interested in asserting their status than they are in making the world a better place. In fact, Tsangari displays an obvious fondness for her characters, muddle-headed as they might sometimes appear: she knows no good can come from leaving us out on our own for too long, and that it might behove a siren to call us back to solid ground and possibly keep the peace.

If I chuckled more during Chevalier than I have during any recent Greek film, that’s partly due to the setpieces (boat maintenance done as hi-NRG disco workout! Competitive flat-pack assemblage!), and partly to droll writing (“I don’t know why you invited him. And he’s terrible at spear-fishing!”) Mostly, though, I laughed from recognising traits visible in, if not your wholly woke correspondent, then certainly more than a few of my dearest homeboys: the rowdy rounds of slights and humblebrags, the insistent checking of hair. (In our defence: given the mess the world’s already in, why wouldn’t you check your hair?)

Tsangari finally has no interest whatsoever in proving which of her characters truly is the best, which generates a slightly diffuse narrative line: we’re drifting round in circles here, within easy reach of the distress flares. Yet where this wave’s previous entries have displayed all the warmth of an autopsy, Chevalier benefits from its sunkissed exteriors and bracing sea air: this ocean is both mollifying mother and sharp-edged mirror, reflecting the best and worst of men back at us. If you’ve ever yearned to know what it is to go through a stag weekend sober: here’s your chance.

(MovieMail, July 2016)

Chevalier screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.15am.

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