Leave it to a woman to lay bare the foibles of man. A film set aboard a luxury yacht with a cast of male actors engaged in bouts of masculine idiocy sounds like the exact kind of excuse Adam Sandler would use to take his entourage of has-beens on a studio-funded vacation. They might get into wacky dilemmas, react to that wackiness with bodily emissions, either liquid or gaseous, meanwhile taking more than a few jabs, literal or figurative, at each other’s nethers—and this happens too in Chevalier, the third feature film by Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari. But Tsangari tells dick jokes of a higher caliber and with a higher purpose: Her dick jokes are essential to her satire of manliness.
Chevalier begins on a boat and remains there. It’s a lavish vessel owned by a man known only as the Doctor (Yiorgos Kendros), who has invited five friends and acquaintances—his assistant, Christos (Sakis Rouvas), his son-in-law Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos), Yannis’s hirsute manchild brother Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), and business partners Josef (Vangelis Mourikis) and Yorgos (Panos Koronis)—for a fishing jaunt on the Aegean Sea. The goal is leisure, of course, with their days spent idling around on the water and in it, making aqua-donuts with jet skis or pulling bream from the depths. Dedicated relaxation isn’t enough to keep them occupied, though, and so Christos proposes a game: Each man thinks up a mental or physical contest where everyone participates and then scores the other. Whoever winds up with the most points wins.
You can make educated guesses about where the film goes from there if you’re fluent in the language of competitive macho bluster, but Tsangari is a gifted, empathetic filmmaker, and she takes Chevalier, her characters and her audience to both expected and surprising places. She is not interested in making a document solely to mock stubborn male foolishness, though there is plenty of that: Watch closely in Chevalier’s opening scenes and you’ll note that these guys challenge each other even before Christos offers his plot-defining suggestion to the rest of his compatriots. Dudes don’t need a reason to butt heads and demonstrate their virility, the film appears to say; leave them alone for long enough and they’ll turn anything into sport. They make casual chatter about how far they’re able to dive, whether they used tanks, how many fish they caught. You’re just waiting for someone to drop trou and pull out a ruler.
The wait ends less than an hour in. Spoilers, perhaps, but you can’t make a movie about men taking part in escalating ego clashes without spotlighting their penises. Chevalier takes us from figurative to literal cock-measuring with a deliberate sense of pacing, perhaps because Tsangari realizes that too much too soon would spoil the joke by ducking reality. Men prefer to show off the size of their privates without having to expose themselves: He who is, as Josef or Yorgos might say, “best in general” has the biggest metaphorical pecker, which is nearly as good as having the biggest actual pecker. (Men are taught to gauge manhood on factors they have zero control over. We’re stupid that way.)
With the male member finally subject to the scrutiny of the cast and the camera, we laugh, but the laughs catch in our throat. It’s a desperate move at the peak of the competition, a sign of male sensitivity forced into the light after lurking beneath bravado. Tsangari has a remarkable understanding of just how fragile men are when you carve past the boasting and the bullshit and get right down to the neurotic insecurities that fuel their behavior. More than that, she cares for these dopes even as she finds new and increasingly hilarious ways with which to skewer them, or for them to skewer themselves. It’s in wrestling over minutiae that Chevalier is at its funniest: The Doctor grills Christos over his dental hygiene regimen, Christos chides Yorgos for putting evaporated milk in espresso, Yorgos shimmies up the yacht’s windshield to scrub it clean.
Tsangari shoots Chevalier and its displays of comic machismo with a flexible, diverse approach to style. Widescreen images are peppered by an array of close-ups and even a couple of quick tracking sequences that lend the film intimacy and spaciousness as the moment demands. At times we feel like we’re on the yacht with the gang, and at others we feel detached, as though Tsangari has set cinematographer Christos Karamanis’s lens just over the edge of the ship’s railings. Those moments of distance are crucial: They keep us from joining in the swaggering ourselves. The characters’ boisterousness is as infectious as it is useless. Even the crew on the yacht can’t help but gamble on who will win. How could they not? Every man here is such a personality unto himself, from uptight Yannis to suave Christos to lovably goofy Dimitris, that you invest in the outcome of the contest without meaning to.
The trick here is that whoever wins actually loses, because only the biggest jackass in the pack is capable of triumphing in a battle this vapid. Still, Tsangari has an obvious if muted affection for these men, even as they come to resemble petulant boys and their series of bets slowly grow increasingly absurd. There is no civility here, but Chevalier’s portrait of unchecked testosterone is complimented by compassion. Perhaps against her better judgment, Tsangari cares about these lunkheads, these boors, these jockish buffoons. They and the flavors of masculinity they represent—stunted, toxic, fearful—are too real for her, and for us, not to, no matter how hard we guffaw at their follies.
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Writer: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Yiorgos Kendros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis Efthymis Papadimitriou, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Sakis Rouvas, Giannis Drakopoulos, Nikos Orphanos, Kostas Filippoglou
Release Date: May 27, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.