At one point in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier,” a group of guys on a yachting expedition take turns listening to one of their friends whisper erotic stories so they’ll get aroused and he can take pictures of their erections. They then compare those photos, judging each other’s penises on length, engorgement, and general spryness. In other words: to pass the time while floating in the Aegean, these idle rich dudes have a literal dick-measuring contest.
This is the kind of bizarre-yet-believable behavior that anyone who’s seen Tsangari’s previous film, “Attenberg,” would expect from “Chevalier.” Like her fellow Greek filmmaker and occasional collaborator Yorgos Lanthimos (director of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster”), Tsangari favors characters who only make sense within the context of the strange stories and spaces that she creates on-screen. Here, working with Lanthimos’ regular co-screenwriter Efthimis Filippou, Tsangari assembles a circle of friends who are both furiously competitive and secretly insecure, and then watches as they nudge each other from plausible levels of macho bluster to something approaching sociopathy.
The cycle begins benignly with an evening of drinking and party games, until the owner of the yacht — known only as “The Doctor” (played by Yorgos Kentros) — suggests they all spend the rest of their holiday testing themselves with a series of mental and physical challenges. They’re also supposed to act as a panel of judges for each other, assigning positive and negative points for everything from the specific (like the amount of cholesterol and sugar in their blood) to the capricious (like their relative mastery of basic life skills like cooking and cleaning). When every one of the six feels like they’ve run enough tests and generated enough data, one of them will be declared “The Best In General,” and awarded a Chevalier signet ring.
Tsangari and Filippou take their time to develop these characters, saving relevant biographical details until the game’s been going on for a while. Initially, the only one who stands out is Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), a gentle man-child with an affinity for puzzles and math problems. Gradually, “Chevalier” establishes that standoffish insurance agent Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) is both Dimitris’ brother and The Doctor’s son-in-law; that the fit, rakish Christos (Sakis Rouvas) is The Doctor’s assistant and his daughter’s ex-boyfriend; and the stressed-out Nikolaou (Vangelis Mourikis) and confident Yorgos (Panos Koronis) are partners in a real estate business. All of this matters in that it helps explain some of the underlying tension between Yannis and Christos, and Nikolaou and Yorgos. They’re all trying to prove something to each other as compensation for past disputes.
Other aspects of the story remain unexplained but subtly suggestive, like how The Doctor wears his own signet ring, presumably won in some earlier game of Chevalier. (This may explain why he seems to get increasingly anxious as he slips in the standings. He’s used to winning.) Even the contests themselves aren’t always straightforward. Sometimes the boys are seeing who can build a set of bookshelves the fastest — which is another kind of erection-comparison — and at other times they’re taking out their little notebooks and jotting down point-deductions when they catch someone smoking or losing their cool.
The visual gag of the notebooks is pretty funny, nearly all the time. The weird assortment of games though wears thin — mainly because the point of the overall competition is clear early on. “Chevalier” is similar to the surreal satires of Luis Buñuel, in that it needles the ridiculous vanities of the upper-class, as they subtly assess each other’s clothes and jobs and states of being. As the game of Chevalier keeps expanding, even The Doctor’s servants start to pick their favorites, and to play a smaller-scale version themselves, which appears to be Tsangari and Filippou’s way of criticizing how the working class aspires to do as the wealthy does… even when it’s stupid.
While the game Chevalier keeps evolving into something darker, the movie “Chevalier” is fairly static. The style’s unchanging throughout, holding to a slow pace and a muted sense of humor. This was the case with “Attenberg” too, which featured unforgettable moments but never built up much momentum. There are several scenes in the middle of this new film that could be shuffled into a different order without substantially altering the overall meaning or plot.
The idea of “Chevalier” is so compelling that the movie earns a lot of goodwill that it never completely squanders. But if the characters in this movie were watching “Chevalier?” They’d be scribbling in their notebooks a lot. [B-]