How do you measure the worth of a man? This question becomes the impetus for Chevalier, the new feature length film from Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari. Set on a yacht journeying to Athens, a group of male friends decide to play a game involving a variety of contests to determine the answer. Weighing in the balance is their sense of identity, which is twisted and disturbed as their contests become increasingly personal. The searing burn of this promise never quite comes to fruition, as the film never fails to build on the tension of the first act.
Masculinity has been the love-theme of this year’s edition of Locarno, and Chevalier further indulges in the dank impulses and fragility of the male ego. Admirably, the film doesn’t fall into broad stereotypes, preferring to suggest we will all fall apart, regardless of gender under the wrong circumstances. The range of judgement that the group engages in reaches into every aspect of their lives, from how high they wear their pants to how quickly and efficiently they can assemble Ikea furniture. The question of virtue is meticulously deconstructed through their game until little is left but the shell of their disappointment. To be anything less than perfect becomes tied to the fall of the family, the economy and the country: this is not just a simple game.
The richness of the film’s themes cannot overcome the weakness of the story. A charming and ironic sense of humour makes up for a lot of deficiencies but can do little to make up for the fact that the film has no forward momentum. While ego is always a great motivator, it isn’t enough to sustain the game. The characters hang in a sort of oblivion, with the action never reaching much deeper than adolescent antics. The actors can only do so much with the material, which never seems to escalate into anything truly unnerving. While the broadest metaphor, perhaps the best of their contests is to determine who has the biggest penis. Although this has obviously been a dick-measuring contest from the onset, the sheer joy where one of the men gets an erection (after a lot of struggle and heartache) is a rather exceptional moment in contemporary cinema. Call me a pervert, but I’d like to see more “beautiful erections” in cinema — in particular if they work so well within the confines of the film, as it does here.
Optimistically, I’d suggest that Chevalier fulfills the demands of Locarno, a festival that prefers challenging films over ones that come in a careful package. Chevalier is not easy because it doesn’t live up to expectations and does not fulfill our cathartic desire for closure. Yet, there are certainly some poor decisions involved, in particular during the film’s final act. Chevalier has definite clarity issues as many walk away unclear of the final winner — this does not seem to be purposefully obscured but rather poorly articulated by the filmmakers.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.