A few years ago, the Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari made a strange and wonderful feature called “Attenberg.” The title referred to the British naturalist David Attenborough, whose documentaries fascinated the main character. In her new film, “Chevalier,” Ms. Tsangari adopts a perspective not unlike Mr. Attenborough’s. While the film is full of artifice and allegorical implication, it also presents itself as a quasiscientific look at human male pack behavior in the wild.
Or is it captivity? The six mostly middle-aged, middle-class gentlemen who constitute the main object of study are together on a yacht, and some of the strange things they do might be ascribed to confinement in small quarters. The boat is large and luxurious, though, and the wide-screen Aegean vistas captured by Ms. Tsangari and Christos Karamanis, her director of photography, hardly suggest claustrophobia. The men are on a vacation, scuba diving and spear fishing in sparkling waters full of mythological significance.
They are ordinary modern guys, unheroic even if their vanity might tempt them to think otherwise. The boat belongs to a doctor, who has invited his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s hapless brother, a junior colleague and a pair of business partners who are old friends of the doctor. There is also a crew, on hand in the manner of servants in an ancient play who mimic and comment on the action of the principals.
Most of that action consists of a game — the prize is a golden ring — that in effect formalizes every aspect of masculine competition. Not content to brag and compare achievements in the usual, casual way, the men create a contest that will determine which of them is “the best in general.” There are designated events (building a set of shelves; performing an on-deck chore; sustaining an erection), but every ordinary activity is also rated and compared. The players are also the judges, jotting down notes and arguing points of procedure.
Ms. Tsangari observes all this in a spirit of gentle, critical comedy. No women are on or around the boat, though there are occasional phone calls and video-chat sessions with wives, daughters and mothers on land. The personalities of the men emerge in the course of the game, and certain common traits are emphasized. Sooner or later, everyone will make an excuse, tell a lie, complain about the rules or cheat. All the competitors are vain, insecure and capable of good sportsmanship, though each one shows these qualities in his own way.
Throughout, a vague threat of violence hovers in the air, along with a somewhat less vague intimation of sublimated homoeroticism. Ms. Tsangari does not push the story too far in these directions, showing a restraint that is both impressive and a little disappointing. Her inquiry stops short of the hearts of these men, and she seems content to dramatize some of the sad, ridiculous and tender ways that boys will be boys.Continue reading the main story