With the perfect timing of a deadpan comic and the keen observational skills of a zoologist, Athina Rachel Tsangari highlights just how bizarre the most banal of human activities can be. In Attenberg (2010), the filmmaker’s previous feature, walking itself is presented as a deranged means by which to move from point A to point B. Confining the action of Chevalier, her third film, almost entirely to a yacht in the Aegean, Tsangari drolly emphasizes primitive behavior in a posh habitat.
Pointedly, the specimens here are all men: a group of six, all but one employed in solidly middle-class professions, whose relation to one another, and even their names, is revealed only gradually. The median age of this sextet is about 40, with the patrician gentleman known only as the Doctor (Yorgos Kendros), who has organized the expedition, the oldest of the group, and plump, cosseted Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) the youngest.
The members of this odd fraternity are first introduced as insignificant, unintelligible shapes: In an extreme long shot overwhelmed by majestic craggy cliffs somewhere along the Greek coast, tiny black-clad bodies surface above the water. On the shore, as their faces become distinct, their actions — slamming octopi and other aquatic life onto rocks, presumably to consume later — prove gruesome.
After peeling out of their wetsuits aboard that luxury cruiser, though, their deeds become more peculiar. “You want to see how long I can hold my breath?” Dimitris eagerly asks one of his associates, who just as alacritously whips out his phone to time this pathetic feat. It is the first of many nonsensical contests that the men will stage in order to determine who is “the best in general,” with the victor to be awarded the Doctor’s signet ring. Silver-polishing skills, triglyceride levels, stone-skipping ability — and, inevitably, tumescence — are all furiously recorded. When not generating comparative data, the men obsessively stare at themselves in the mirror, pinching rolls of belly fat or admiring calf-muscle tone.
Despite the claustrophobic setting and Tsangari’s observational style, Chevalier doesn’t register as hermetic or coolly condescending; the film feels loose and agile even amid so much capricious rule-making. Her scrutiny of male folly and vanity never lacks for bite, but she extends sympathy to her half-dozen desperate competitors, never more so than in a scene that obliquely suggests their behavior may be a response to Greece’s perpetually calamitous state.
Luminaries of Greek cinema’s new wave, Tsangari and Yorgos Lanthimos — whose first two films she produced; he acted in Attenberg — share a mordant sensibility and a fascination with codes and rituals. They also share a screenwriter: Efthymis Filippou, who scripted Chevalier with Tsangari, also co-wrote with Lanthimos his latest, The Lobster, a piercing, savagely funny dystopian tale about mating. Tsangari’s worldview is less flamboyantly pessimistic than her compatriot’s. Her field notes unquestionably record despair, but the conclusions aren’t as resolutely grim.