Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

"Takes a bawdy idea and turns it into something far more complex."

Chevalier feels like a film that’s been dying to get out for some time. Masculinity, or at least the construct of it, has been in an state of crisis in popular culture. Films such as Entourage get accused of celebrating the most toxic aspects of the male social construct, Top Gear is held up as a totem of everything that is wrong with idle banter, and the male status quo finds itself in endless cyclical war with itself. Surely Ladus Maximus will crawl hollering to the top of this pile of embarrassment and insult in the next few years so we can put it all behind us.

But what is peak masculinity? Can it be graded? Is it a measure of physical, mental, emotional prowess? Is it just testosterone? Rather than attempt to really provide any steadfast answers to these questions, director and writer Athina Rachel Tsangari uses the premise of Chevalier to turn a magnifying glass on the bizarre artifice of group machismo.

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On a claustrophobic but cutting edge yacht, five men who are loosely related by familial or work ties are on a fishing and diving holiday. Unable to get any satisfaction out of pigeonholing each other due to lack of group objectivity games, they decide to play a different game to determine who is “The Best In General”. This is simple to the point of ambiguity: each of the five must come up with some kind of contest, but everyone may rate anyone on anything at any point. The prize is simple, the winner gets to keep a small Chevalier ring until the next time the game is invoked.

The air of paranoia that descends is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' strange and uncanny dystopian dreamscapes Dogtooth and The Lobster, which considering their status as steadfasts of the Greek New Wave (Tsangari wrote and directed cult hit Attenberg) is no surprise. In the contest, everything is a euphemism, except for when it isn’t. The group find themselves pretending to sleep with good posture to get good grades, one of the group comes up with the incredibly novel idea of measuring their penis, turning a figurative dick measuring contest into a literal one with none of the group sensing a hint of irony. Conversations become quizzes and interviews, with everyone clarifying and editing their responses as they try to win over their friends with intimate knowledge of things that they feel will portray them as “the best”.

Unsurprisingly, this makes Chevalier utterly hilarious. Through the constant bickering between the former and current son-in-law of Doctor, Tsangari provides typical poisonous barbs about sexuality, but where her script succeeds is in getting under the skin of her characters and exploiting their perceived failings as men. The star of the show is certainly Efthymis Papadimitriou, who plays a sort of John C. Reilly pratfaller. Overweight, overly emotional and desperate for approval, he serenades the crew, finds ways to worm his way out of contests through obstinacy, and tops it all off by miming Minnie Riperton’s Loving You whilst his older brother dances irresponsibly behind him with flares.

Despite lacking the shocking snaps of violence and sudden disturbing stars of other contemporary Greek films, Chevalier manages to be provocative and unnerving without resorting to more physical methods. Even when things do get bloody via a bonding ritual, it’s played for laughs rather than gasps, and the constant scribbling in notebooks and scathing glances as the group score each other on more and more ridiculous criteria give the film plenty of edge.

The churning sea and abandoned coastal complex that are contrasted against the luxury of the yacht anchor the film in broader social and economic contexts. A few scenes reinforce this, but most notably the juxtaposing of the players ruminating on the idea of remaining on an infinite holiday with the catering crew supplying them with food and fresh sheets beginning to make their own guesses at scoring is impossible to view as anything other than a wry take on Greece’s current global situation.

Though its premise initially seems to be one that might rely too heavily on petty insults - a particularly brilliant altercation results in one of the group announcing to the other that “your syntax is shit and your dick is very, very small” - and surface level analysis of the male psyche, Chevalier works hard to mine its material. It takes a bawdy idea and turns it into something far more complex, but remains utterly absurd, subversive and hilarious from start to finish.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2016
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Six men on a boat try to judge who is best.
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Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari

Writer: Efthymis Filippou, Athina Rachel Tsangari

Starring: Sakis Rouvas, Vangelis Mourikis, Giorgos Pyrpassopoulos

Year: 2015

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Greece

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