A restricted focus proves a mixed blessing in Chevalier, which places six neurotically competitive men in the confines of a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea and waits for what would seem like the inevitable fireworks. Yet while director Athina Rachel Tsangari is as adept at finding fresh perspectives on her single setting as she is at slyly flattening out the structure of the group’s tireless gameplaying, her obvious skill can’t hide the fact that how she packages her one-note concept is perhaps more interesting than the concept itself. For all the many possible interpretations the scenario permits, the most apparent one is also the least compelling: men will be men.
The wordless trip spent diving for fish that opens Chevalier is the first indication of the film’s disdain for exposition, with the group’s subsequent return to the yacht being more about revealing the different bodies tucked beneath diving suits or each man’s need to show off his varying catches than establishing who these men might actually be. Given that it’s never revealed why exactly this sextet is holed up in this comfortably unmoored setting, competition and comparison are indeed what come to largely characterize the group, as their pointedly inconsequential talk revolves around the stamina increase gained from giving up smoking, the length of time you can hold your breath for, or the likelihood of finding a perfectly spherical pebble when 99% of stones aren’t shaped as such. As the six men lounge around together or in their individual cabins, Tsangari’s ever-unusual framing angles, playful approach to focus, and eye for abstraction are on hand to amplify the atmosphere of oblique absurdity already transmitted by the dialogue.
But the game is only truly afoot once the men decide, one drunken night, that their furtive rivalry can be satisfied once and for all by playing “Chevalier,” a competition whereby each person thinks up a different contest for the group as a whole to participate in, with the person amassing the most points across all these contests winning the chance to wear the titular chevalier ring. Yet it’s typical of both the men’s hubris and Tsangari’s desire for crafty complication that this already ridiculous game is stretched yet further, with the group also agreeing that points can be awarded for literally anything anyone does so that the winner may call himself “the best in general,” a meaningless title that’s nonetheless coveted by all. Instead of each contest being staged as an individual set piece, life on the boat thus becomes one never-ending exercise in scoring and measurement. Whether it’s a man’s cleaning prowess, the time he needs to respond to a cry for help or build an IKEA shelving unit, or his penis size, both flaccid and erect, there’s no skill that can’t be quantified.
Once this scenario is in place, Tsangari is content to let it run its course, allowing various pricklings of homoeroticism, neurosis, anger, and fear to both emerge and dissipate again almost in rhythm with the gentle pitching of the boat. The entire tone is almost aggressively without emphasis throughout, with droll atmospherics privileged over belly laughs, general group dynamics over individual psychology, and unconnected exchanges over overt dramatic progression. There’s something undeniable impressive about Tsangari’s flair for both sidestepping the obvious and moderating and maintaining tone, but the deliberate lack of peaks and troughs also generates increasing monotony as the film progresses, its intriguingly flattened-out dramatic structure more interesting to examine than actually experience.
Yet this sense of torpor also stems from the all-too-convenient openness of the central conceit. Much like in his collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos, co-screenwriter Efthimis Filippou once again withholds any specific information here that might give privilege to one particular interpretation. As such, the men’s obsessive squabblings could be a comment on almost anything: the subjective nature of consensus, the impossibility of solidarity, the absurdity of perpetual discussion, all of which are perfectly, even boringly apt as a statement on contemporary Greece. Combined with Tsangari’s de-dramatized approach, this familiar game of spot the meaning ends up leaving the drama even more becalmed; if all this can mean anything, it can equally mean nothing. And when shorn of any wider significance, what Chevalier boils down to just feels too easy for a director of Tsangari’s talent: Sure, men are competitive beasts, but is that all there is?