Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chevalier - an object lesson in how to be “The Best in General” (QFT until 28 July)

Six men gather on a doctor’s large luxury motor boat. For some it seems to be a regular getaway; for others it’s the first time they’ve come along to the macho retreat.

It’s quickly apparent – if anything in the ponderous 105 minute film Chevalier is truly ‘quick’ – that there’s a competitive streak running through the boat. And the competition escalates whenever they decide to formalise their rivalry into a “The Best in General” contest. The winner is supposed to wear a Chevalier signet ring until they get back together to play again.

Soon every gesture, posture and activity is being judged and scored. It’s like a very mundane version of Jackass. Less physically painful to watch, but even more emotionally gut-wrenching as the performance anxiety, sibling rivalry, bullying, opportunities for humiliation and fatuous testosterone-driven tournament progresses. Fans of Swedish homebuilt furniture will be particularly impressed with one round: the only challenge I’d have won!

Frankly it’s baffling that these six guys would ever want to share time away together. Of the six, Dimitris (played by Makis Papadimitriou) is vulnerable and naïve and the object of pity; he has tagged along with his brother. He’s the most honest of the game players, yet he’s still not likeable.

The opening shots set the dark tone, bringing out the black of the rocky coastline. The first few minutes with its tight foreground focus on the men and very blurry distance made by eyes hurt, but the visual effect was soon dropped. Music is used so infrequently that the three or four times it is dropped into the soundtrack of waves and wind it’s like a fresh character walking onto the screen.

The on-screen angst transfers into the chests of the audience who are bound up in this dreadful derby. The air of judgement also transfers to the yacht’s crew. Playing Top Trumps with blood test results deservedly elicits a giggle or two. There are laughs at irregular intervals, but the film stops well short of being any kind of comedy, never mind a black comedy.

The all-male movie keeps women behind the camera. Is the director Athina Rachel Tsangari perhaps judging even more harshly than the men, with a similar notebook full of scribbles and marks? And do men really play these games? Really? Surely it’s a phallic fallacy? There have got to be better ways to live and rest and enjoy company than this.

The insecurities and poor judgement feels universal rather than Greek, and the film could have been set in any shoreline around Europe (or further afield) as easily as around the coast from Athens.

The end is apt and some came out of the screening I attended raving about the film. Others – like me – found it to be a pointless object lesson on how to be a complete idiot, with five or six prime examples to work from. Either way Chevalier is a painful, yet effective, character study.

Chevalier is in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 22 to Thursday 28 July.

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