An early poster for Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier” features the cryptic tagline “a buddy movie without buddies,” which aptly describes the macho rivalries at its center. Tsangari’s inventive story follows six apparently wealthy men on a ship in the Aegean Sea playing a vaguely-defined game to determine which of them holds the greatest traits. It’s never entirely clear whether they’re all just messing around or feel a deeper urge to triumph in their eccentric contest. The only certainty is Tsangari has delivered another intriguing and thoroughly original character study, which this time serves as an apt metaphor for Greece’s larger problems.
Over the course of “Chevalier,” friendships are indeed tested, gossip circulates and flaws are scrutinized, all within the confines of the boat. The minimalist setting fits a premise so tightly contained that it constantly threatens to become overly precocious. Instead, Tsangari maintains an impressive grasp of each man’s oddball tendencies, yielding a fascinating — if occasionally meandering — study of competitive spirit.
Such inquisitive themes and bizarre conceits should hit a familiar note for anyone versed in the so-called “Greek Weird Wave,” composed mainly of Tsangari’s films and those made by her regular collaborator Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth,” “Alps,” “The Lobster”). While Lanthimos’ dark comedies tend to follow twisted paths, Tsangari offers comparatively warmer, playful encounters with baffled characters trapped in cycles beyond their control.
“Chevalier” excels at this tendency: By boiling down its premise to a single environment and focusing on the way obsession can lead to chaos, it offers a keen allegory for the institutional dysfunction that may have led to Greece’s debilitated economy. But it also rises above the restrictions of topical metaphors. Joining Tsangari’s idiosyncratic coming of age tale “Attenberg” and her experimental look at femininity “The Capsule,” the new movie offers further proof of Tsangari’s status as one of the most innovative chroniclers of human behavior working today.
While the earlier movies focused on women, Tsangari’s shift to an all-male cast points to her wry scrutiny of gender dynamics. In its most basic form, the story unfolds as an absurdist comedy about virile behavior reduced to a primal state. While near-ethnographic in theory, “Chevalier” only occasionally struggles from cerebral remove; mostly, the filmmaker delivers a fun and constantly unexpected ocean romp wherein seemingly innocuous challenges lead ludicrous antics.
As “Chevalier” begins, the men depart from a relaxing day at the beach and begin to head home. At first, it’s unclear exactly how they all relate to each other. Tsangari hurdles through a series of mundane exchanges about fish, women and other routine topics, a keen method of universalizing the scenario. Eventually, however, their particular dynamic takes shape. Lording over the vessel is a wealthy doctor (Yorgos Kentros) who regards his companions with a stern paternal gaze.
That’s especially true for Christos (Giorgos Pyrpassopoulos), who’s married to the doctor’s daughter, though he’s also concerned for Josef (Vangelis Mourikis), an older, hard-partying free spirit convinced of his lasting sexual prowess. But everyone tends to regard the portly goofball Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) as the least responsible of the group, as he wanders around with a confounded stare, providing the greatest source of comic relief.
Over the course of an evening over drinks, the men come around to deciding they’ll engage in a competition to determine which of them deserves the title of “best ever,” a hilariously imprecise concept that leads to various outrageous outcomes. Before long, the men are wielding notebooks and scribbling down judgements of their pals while forging alliances in the hopes of upping their odds for winning the chevalier signet ring they’ve agreed to be their prize. (The staff looks on with continuing bewilderment.) Carefully scripted by Tsangari and Efthimis Filippou, “Chevalier” reveals this scenario with such subtlety that by the time all the pieces take shape it’s easy to forget the sheer ridiculousness of the stakes.
Tsangari’s premise can only carry the material so far, and at times “Chevalier” lags from redundant exchanges as it continues to linger in the obsessive exchanges taking place around the boat. In the process of turning the peculiar material into something credible, Tsangari normalizes it, to the point where some scenes have a tendency to drag. Still, the wildly different traits among this close-knit ensemble contributes to a generally unpredictable trajectory, as well as a macabre quality that suggests these misadventures could take a dark turn at any moment.
“Chevalier” could easily have been conceived as a juvenile studio comedy aimed squarely at the sensibilities of boorish young men. (The fuzzy-haired dolt played by Papadimitriou suggests the love child of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill.) Instead, Tsangari threads the conceit into a highbrow look at the psychological forces behind the outrageous hijinks in play.
Even so, “Chevalier” remains eager to please, with the narrative repeatedly arriving at hilarious sequences, including one revolving around a self-described “beautiful erection,” not to mention a ridiculous song-and-dance number, and more than one instance of comical bloodshed. Considering the sheer inanity of the contest, the ridiculous extremes embraced by each man provide a recurring source of humorous payoff.
Gorgeously shot almost exclusively within the confines of the boat, “Chevalier” joins Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” in the small pantheon of movies that wield that setting to their advantage. With few distractions, the entire narrative revolves around the nuances of facial expressions and body language. The movie presents these details like puzzle pieces with no precise fit. Clarity only arrives with the surprisingly charming finale, which posits that life is just one big game no matter one chooses to play it.
“Chevalier” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.