Few European directors are as deserving of your time as Athina Rachel Tsangari. Born in 1966, Tsangari’s filmmaking career began after leaving her native Greece to attend film school at the University of Texas at Austin. It was during her time in Austin that she met Richard Linklater and snagged a small role in his hugely-influential independent film Slacker. After returning to Greece in 1995, Tsangari devoted herself to establishing a short film festival and working on a number of performance and projection-based art projects including the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics. Not long after the Olympics, Tsangari founded a production company that helped to launch the career of Yorgos Lanthimos.
2009 was an important year for both Tsangari and European film as a series of high-profile festival victories brought Lanthimos’ Dogtooth to the attention of international audiences. Dogtooth stood out from the crowd as while many European art house films choose to dwell on the experiences of the middle-aged and middle-class using a cinematic language first laid down in the 1960s, Dogtooth used surrealist imagery to explore the experiences of a younger generation that was slowly being crushed by the wealthy delusions of their parents. In the wake of the 2007 economic crash, this seemed relevant. In view of a European film scene that was already beginning to ossify around a cadre of male directors who had achieved creative maturity in the 1980s, this seemed nothing short of necessary.
The success of Dogtooth not only established Lanthimos as an important European filmmaker in his own right, it also paved the way for a similar but far stronger film by the woman whose production company gave him his big break in the first place. Indeed, Tsangari’s second film Attenberg may have shared Dogtooth’s political fascinations and fondness for surrealist imagery but Tsangari not only managed to conjure up much stronger visuals but also found a way to maintain the link between her flights of surrealist fancy and the human emotions that fuel them. In six years, European cinema has not come anywhere close to producing a film as uniquely weird as Attenberg. Less pyrotechnically weird than intensely thoughtful, Tsangari’s third film Chevalier more than justifies her growing reputation as one of the most exciting directors in contemporary European cinema. This is not just weird… this is weirdness wielded as a scalpel.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of an overcast Mediterranean beach. After a few moments of beautiful stillness, a group of men in wetsuits march up the beach and start killing fish by smashing them against the rocks. As the men step out of the water, the ends of their belts hang in front of their crotches in a surreal foreshadowing of the sexualised madness to come.
The men in question are a group of successful middle-aged Greek men who have decided to hire a yacht and spend some time together on holiday. Right from the start, Tsangari emphasises both the oddness of the individual men and the strange energies that bind the group together: First we see the men bickering with each other over inconsequential nonsense and then we see the same men using their laptops to broadcast images of their feet to a faceless and genderless audience. In scene after scene, the men spark off each other in displays of sublimated sexual dominance and even attempts to build new friendships carry an edge of sexual longing as young scraggly-bearded betas prostrate themselves before older and more elaborately-bearded alphas.
These long-simmering energies are brought to a boil when an innocent guessing game leads to someone storming out of the room because they disagree with the group’s decision to describe another member of the group as looking like a panda bear. Desperate to clear the air and confront the tensions hanging over the holiday, one member of the group proposes a competition that involves everyone giving each other points until the end of the holiday when the person with the most points wins a signet ring referred to as a ‘chevalier’.
Despite dark visuals dominated by cramped cabins and a general air of sombre claustrophobia, Chevalier is a very funny film. Much of the film’s humour comes from the group’s willingness to subject themselves to a series of ridiculous challenges ranging from their ability to endure the cold and their speed at cleaning silverware all the way through to the healthiness of their blood tests and the quality of their morning erections. There’s even a lovely scene where the group sneak into someone’s cabin while they’re asleep in order to evaluate the aesthetics of both their sleeping position and chosen attire: Marks deducted for not sleeping naked, extra points for owning colourfully-striped boxer shorts.
Unsurprisingly, the boundary-less nature of this competition serves only to accelerate and amplify tensions present within the group. This means that an already bizarre holiday gets progressively weirder and more unpleasant the longer it is allowed to last: Time and again, failure to succeed at challenges set by the group leads to loss of face and emotional breakdowns that somehow never quite blossom into either outright violence or the kind of transgressive sexual activity suggested by that image of the bloke showing his feet to someone over the internet. This is a holiday on which older men obsess about their sexual potency while younger men smoulder with resentment at the amount of control exerted over them by more senior and wealthier members of the group. Friendships rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, lies are spun and abandoned, but none of it ever seems to matter.
Much like Attenberg, Chevalier is a film about a group of characters that express themselves in bizarre ways. The major difference between the two films is that while the characters in Attenberg all seem conscious of their own desires, the characters in Chevalier seem to engage in weird behaviour patterns precisely in order to avoid dealing with their obvious need for social and sexual domination. The group’s sublimation of sexual desire is obvious both from the way that all genuine expressions of sexual desire are met with embarrassed silence and from the way that the film ends with one sailor telling another that the competition ended with the entire group stabbing each other before having sex… only to then admit that this was nothing more than a lie.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura was booed by audiences at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival because he deliberately sought to deny his audience the pleasures of dramatic resolution. The film begins with a bunch of wealthy friends sailing around the Mediterranean on a yacht only for one member of the group to disappear while exploring a volcanic island. At first, the rest of the group worry about their friend and try to find out what happened to her but eventually they all seem to lose interest and get on with their lives. The film is nearly 150-minutes long and ends with nothing being learned and nothing being achieved because sometimes life does not fit into neat little arcs. The fact that Chevalier is in dialogue with L’Avventura is obvious from the yacht and island motifs but also from the way that Tsangari follows Antonioni in deliberately withholding the pleasures of resolution from both her characters and her audience.
Chevalier ends with the characters having learned and accomplished nothing: The film’s lack of resolution frustrates the audience in an effort to mirror the characters’ feelings of frustration over their own inability to confront their hidden desires. As an audience, we are denied the jouissance of proper plot resolution because the characters could not find it in themselves to either stab or have sex with each other in the way suggested by both the sailor’s made-up conclusion and the combination of competitiveness and sexual yearning that drove the characters’ ridiculous competition.
One way of approaching Chevalier is to view it as a film about the sublimation of same-sex desire among men professing to be straight. However, while homophobic denial does lend an interesting subtext to many of the film’s most powerful scenes, Tsangari does go out of her way to frustrate this kind of reductive reading. Indeed, a number of characters make explicit reference to past sexual dalliances and two of the characters appear not only openly gay but also in a relationship with each other. Chevalier is not so much a film about the denial of homosexual urges as a film about the claustrophobic nature of male sexuality and the way that masculinity deprives men of the psychological tools required to deal with such emotional ambiguities as the overlap between friendship and attraction, the dynamics of master/student relationships, or reconciling a desire to be dominated sexually with the cultural expectation that you will go out and achieve material success in a competitive world.
Rather than presenting her characters as a set of sexually dysfunctional grotesques, Tsangari gives her film a political edge by suggesting that these sexually dysfunctional men might actually be representative of the kind of middle-aged and middle-class men who tend to congregate in positions of power and authority. Indeed, while the majority of Chevalier takes place on-board a yacht, the group does occasionally travel close to land allowing us to see walls of high-rise apartments growing out of the sea. Tsangari never takes us inside these buildings but the characters do sometimes look out over them and discuss the possibility that they might actually be abandoned. Aside from being a nice reference to both Greece’s economic problems and the fact that one of the characters in Attenberg made his money constructing buildings that would later be abandoned, these images of empty cities make the psychodrama unfolding aboard the yacht feel even more tiny and ridiculous. These are powerful, wealthy, and competent people but rather than getting out there and helping to make the world a better place, they squat aboard luxury yachts and ignore the outside world whilst struggling to come to terms with their own sexual desires.
Tsangari’s Chevalier is a major work by a director who must now be viewed as one of the most important and exciting European filmmakers. Beautifully shot, cleverly written, artfully structured, and brilliantly conceived, Chevalier casts a deeply unflattering light on the psychosexual dysfunctions of ruling elites that continue to fail us all. Frankly, the only way this film could be more timely and relevant would be if it starred Donald Trump.