The quiet observation of how completely power corrupts has long been a mainstay of modern cinema. Filmic monuments to the breakdown of once-treasured relationships are many. It is a powerful dramatic tool, capable of providing a framework for an entire film. Think of the incendiary breakdown of the central relationship in The Prestige, the double act carnage between The Bride and Bill, or the real life legal disharmony between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave is a wonderfully extreme vision of friendship crumbling under external pressures.
The release today of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier brings a leading light of the new Greek filmmakers to broader shores. Telling the tale of friendships turned sour on a luxury boat trip in the calm waters off the Greek mainland, Chevalier takes six friends on a life-changing journey and us along for the bumpy ride.
Check out the synopsis and the film’s trailer below.
In the middle of the Aegean Sea, on a luxury yacht, six men on a fishing trip decide to play a game. During this game things will be compared. Things will be measured. Songs will be butchered, and blood will be tested. Friends will become rivals, and rivals will become hungry. But at the end of the voyage when the game is over, the man who wins will be the best man. And he will wear upon his littlest finger the victorious signet ring: the ‘Chevalier’.
Tsangari has worked hard to build up the Greek film industry with her work on the international festival circuit. She is one of Yorgos Lanthimos’ producers, most notably in last decade from Kinetta, through Dogtooth to Alps. Lanthimos’ films are far more dark and satiric than Tsangari’s, however they share a careful, unobstructed observation of the worlds they create. Such deftness of direction can be traced to Hollywood and the work of Richard Linklater, whose Greece-set instalment of the ‘Before’ trilogy had Tsangari as a co-producer.
Five years before the testosterone-fueled chest beating of Chevalier Tsangari released Attenberg, a warmly received tale of two measures of loss – that of an inexperienced young woman and her terminally-ill father. The sensitive, almost silent treatment of the powerful emotions at play are far from the macho land-grab of Chevalier, however the depth of feeling and ability to convey this on screen is part of what makes Tsangari such a potent filmaker. If you can it’s worth checking Attenberg out when you’re done with Chevalier.
In Chevalier setting the film, and the friends, in an isolated location is a master stroke, and is the perfect way to demonstrate the emotional turmoil which leads each character to out-do the other. David Fincher’s The Social Network had a broader locale, that of the early days of the internet, and watched the former friends take each other apart with lawyers and thinly-veiled demonstrations of dominance. The warehouse location of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs gave the director a fine opportunity to bring about the boiling tensions inherent in the situation. Cutting the characters off from the outside world made the bloody conclusion all the more effective, and all the more inevitable.
The poster above makes clear the petty nature of the alpha-male standoff. The fight to be top of a squabbling pile of men, and to score a victory so insignificant as to be totally useless out back on dry land, may look pretty inconsequential against something like the rotten core of the Avengers in the recent Civil War film. But this is the point. There is nothing at stake here apart from pride, and the shared knowledge of superiority – something we understand innately. In essence all of these men of this floating contest want to be Ant-Man in the Civil War airport fight scene – they all want to be the big man.
However, this is not merely a reality TV show on film. There is nothing trivial about the bravado, the need for dominance and the ever-narrowing definitions of friendships and the fading line of moral certainty. Ambiguity looms large over Tsangari’s film, and unlike the blunt instruments of less nuanced ‘Friend turned Foe’ relationships on film we are not merely onlookers to a bizarre competition, but begin to see our own ambitions and fears in the actions and reactions of the cast of characters.
The breakdown of a friendship provides fertile ground for this gripping drama. Chevalier introduces an almost comic level of small-minded inconsequence to the battles which play out, then almost without you realising it the knife is twisted – and the film’s deeper themes emerge.
Chevalier is well worth your time, if only to sail beyond the Hollywood horizon and discover the rich depths of world cinema out there.