Characters (left to right): Christos (Sakis Rouvas), the doctor (Yiorgis Kendros), Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos), Josef Nikolaou (Vangelis Mourikis), Yorgos (Panos Koronis) and Dimitris (Makis Papadimitrou) - latter not in a wet-suit
Of the films directed by women covered by this study, Chevalier co-written (with Efthymis Filippou) and directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) is the first to deal with sports, or more particularly competition. This is the peculiarly male habit of wanting to be the best. Hillary Clinton wants the top job in American politics but she has never proclaimed herself to be the top woman. It is not that women don’t want to be successful. It is just that they are uncomfortable at being the best at the expense of someone else. That said, I spoke recently to Bend it like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha who said that during a meeting to get a gig, she described herself as the most successful director working in British cinema. The claim didn’t work, but it is important to remind people in positions of power of what you have actually achieved. According to Ashley Merriman, the co-author of ‘Top Dog: the Science of Winning and Losing’, there is no such thing as a person who isn’t competitive, and watching my wife’s outrage when I lose points at film quizzes for disagreeing with the Quiz Master (‘I’m never coming to the ArtHouse Film Quiz again’) I am inclined to agree.
Competition is encouraged to improve performance, but there are always arguments about whether it is fair and whether some teams or individuals have a competitive advantage through inherited wealth, access to resources and an unlimited transfer budget. In the UK, the premiership champions Leicester were particularly acclaimed for having fewer resources than their top flight competitors like Chelsea and Manchester City, but still managed to accumulate more points than their rivals in the 2015/16 season. What they had was a top notch manager, Claudio Ranieri, who had never won a league trophy but came second seven times. He had the nous to learn from experience and exploit his rivals’ weaknesses. One could argue that striker Jamie Vardy’s suspicious looking arm cast also played its part.
The other issue is that competitions that feature women alone are often defined by subjective judgements and therefore have lesser value in society. Or as my teacher once said, life isn’t a beauty contest. Yes, I corrected him, it’s a beauty pageant. Figure skating and baton twirling are some of the activities that don’t appear to have an objective – to place a ball in the back of the net or accumulate more runs. The problem could be that women are placed in competitions that are less meretricious.
Chevalier is about six men on a luxury yacht and the bizarre and pointless games they play to prove that they are ‘the best in general’. Competitions are compelling but exist in their own little bubble. In the film, it is not the taking part or being the best that matters, rather what the game reveals about each character. The title refers to a signet ring, a Chevalier, worn by the host, for which they play. The other thing about games is that they encourage others to take part, to experience the same thrill as the players. As my teacher also said, life is not a spectator sport. That’s true, I agreed; it’s a spectator sport where the view in front of you is blocked by someone else and everyone keeps their damned mobile phone switched on; the lights in the theatre are very distracting.
As many a famous quizmaster (or mistress) has said: let’s introduce the players.
The doctor (Yiorgis Kendros) owns the boat on which the action principally takes place. He is in his sixties and has a daughter. He has recently quit smoking - we see him apply a nicotine patch early on. He is also very protective towards his vessel (‘no shoes inside the boat’) and his adult daughter, Anna, whom he telephones. The doctor would like a grandchild but refuses to believe that Anna is infertile. He is frequently seen on his rowing machine. He snores. Drool is visible. He also burps loudly, attributing it to the stuffed eggplant he has eaten at dinner.
Christos (Sakis Rouvas) works with the doctor at the clinic. He once dated Anna, the doctor’s daughter, but the relationship broke down. He is particularly chastised for having given Anna a desk set. Flowers, a nice meal, expensive jewellery, beautiful clothes, a holiday – but a desk set? The inference is that he devalued her. Christos dreams of taking over the clinic. Exercising on a rowing machine next to the doctor, he is a frequent confidant. But the doctor can row for longer, a success he attributes to giving up smoking. The doctor isn’t even thinking about retirement. Christos also has high cholesterol (260) – he cannot believe it.
Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) is the doctor’s son-in-law. Clean-shaven (like the doctor and Christos) but not in the medical profession, he is (he thinks) a successful insurance agent. ‘I sold 170 insurance policies last year – 170. Think about that number,’ he tells the doctor and others. He and Anna don’t have children – they married when Anna was older. Yannis deflects criticism that he may be infertile. ‘Do I talk about insurance claims?’ says the doctor in response. ‘Well, don’t talk about medicine.’ Yannis has a role to play during the competition, reading erotic literature to help get the men a hard-on. Some stories, we discover, work better than others. Yannis wears striped underwear. According to one character, ‘they are nice.’ Though described as a nudist – we see him floating in the sea completely naked - Yannis wears underwear in bed. ‘Maybe he’s not asleep.’ Yannis does not like having his underwear inspected. He is described by one of the characters as resembling a panda. He is chastised for his misuse of flares (of the signal not trouser kind).
Dimitris (Makis Papadimitrou) is Yannis’ brother. They don’t look alike. He doesn’t dive, rather collects pebbles instead. The pebbles line the side of the communal bath in little clusters. Yannis is searching for a perfect round pebble. He has found one that is close to a sphere and can tell Yannis its size. He is good at Rubik’s cube and can complete it in 18.2 seconds. He can also lip synch to ‘Loving You’ and isn’t bad at the Ikea shelf challenge. He may be autistic. He certainly isn’t married. He fears sharp needles and knows when he is being tricked - the doctor describes applying a special ointment as he prepares to jab in a syringe, but Dimitris recoils before the needle goes in. He has a chest x-ray to prove his good health and can produce it if required. He can hold his breath for 18 seconds – we see him do so. Once he held it for 22 seconds, he explains. You might describe him as the comedian of the group. He is the most memorable character, especially for his cartwheels during his lip-synching performance and his street-dancing moves. Sporting a beard, he resembles the American actor John C. Reilly – but I bet Reilly can’t do cartwheels.
Josef Nikolaou (Vangelis Mourikis), sometimes referred to as Mr Nikolaou, is the doctor’s oldest friend. He has a greying beard and hair he ties back in a bow. He has difficulties achieving an erection on demand (‘maybe it’s the story’) so cannot photograph it for one of the tasks. His business may be in trouble; he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his partner, with whom he fights at one point. (One of the men is pinned down on a bed during an argument.) When Josef gets an erection, he offers the other men a ‘f-k’. We also hear how he made love to a customer, as witnessed by his business partner. Josef is insecure, but the source of this is never articulated.
Yorgos (Panos Koronis) is Josef’s business partner. He likes driving in circles on a jet ski, even if he splashes others. Dimitris respects Yorgos, who is like the brother he would prefer; Dimitris compliments Yorgos on his belly – packing a spare tyre, but muscle. Yorgos’ marriage is in trouble – he thanks his wife for her call for making it seem like their relationship is on an even keel. He is one of the favourites – with Christos, the clinician - to win. The older men, the doctor and Mr Nikolaou are placed fifth and sixth. Yorgos has a ringtone that makes the sound of a frog. His son may have added it to his phone. But why hasn’t Yorgos changed it? Maybe he didn’t want to hurt his son’s feelings, suggests Dimitris. ‘That’s it,’ says Yorgos. In the finale, Yorgos asks a crew member to line the floor of the boat with towels. Then he slashes the palm of his hand and invites the men to be his blood brothers. Only one of the men accepts, slashing, after a few failed attempts, the skin by his buttocks. When Yorgos places his hand on the other man’s leg, the pose is suggestively sexual.
Each player is asked to devise their own game. The choice of game suggests something about the gentleman who thought of it.
Pebble skimming (suggested by Josef Nikolaou) – Dimitris’ pebble collection ends up being depleted. Dimitris is incensed. ‘You said you wanted to borrow them. You didn’t say what for.’ ‘I was doing you a favour,’ Josef replies. ‘They belong in the sea.’ Dimitris had a use for them. He wanted to build a terrarium. ‘A what?’ ‘A terrarium.’ (It’s like an aquarium but for plants instead of fish.) Dimitris sulks.
The longest erection – this is self-explanatory. Yannis loses points on this.
General health (suggested by the doctor) – this is necessitated by blood tests. As Dimitris cannot tolerate the needle, he isn’t assessed.
Fastest construction of an Ikea set of CD shelves – the doctor fails. He struggles with the instructions. It is notable that he plays music from ‘old fashioned’ vinyl records.
Responding to a cry for help (suggested by Yannis) – the first person who responds wins. The doctor is last.
Ring tones (suggested by Dimitris) – I’m not sure if this is a game, or whether comparing tones just happens.
Eating at night in the open air – not so much as an official endurance test, but each player denies they are feeling the cold. This precedes Dimitris’ lip-synching show.
Players are also judged on their general behaviour and appearance.
Competition extends to the two men who work in the kitchen, who provide a running commentary and score points off each other. They are required to stay behind when the boat is back in the dock in Athens. The competition continues even though the deep sea fishing trip is over. The doctor respects the captain and sends him away with a handshake. He is dismissive towards the others. He may keep them for one day, two days or 20; it does not matter.
The captain calls the shots. He tells the boating party to take off their shoes before entering the boat (reinforcing the doctor’s instruction) that there will be repairs to the generator, the skiff is available for trips to the mainland and that cheesecake is no longer available for dinner; it will be placed by lemon pie.
I shouldn’t say in the interest of spoilers, but he leaves on a motorcycle. He also has a tell-tale sign, related to an action seen earlier. Is his victory deserved? Of course not! The games are completely silly and reveal something about the poverty of imagination of the six players; how they don’t pay attention to the things that matter.
Is the film a comedy or a drama?
Tsangari doesn’t present any of the characters as an obvious hero. Nor are there any defined stars of Greek cinema playing to their image. There are laughs and also dramatic tension. Tsangari is interested in the space between comedy and drama. What are we doing with our time in the planet? Nothing is resolved the games – and that’s the point. They are a displacement activity, to make the characters forget about the problems they face. I wasn’t absolutely clear why all these men were on the boat at the same time. Did the doctor think it would be fun? The audience response to the film is uncertain, but it gets to the heart of a problem in society, not tackling difficulties head on. So it is a film about modern Greece. The boat setting suggests the poorly-steered political direction of the country; uncertain, not going anywhere. The first image is of a cliff face with five men emerging from the sea in black wetsuits. There is a prolonged shot of the men helping each other to get out of them. Each one can’t do it alone. A team effort is required. Individualism isn’t the answer.
Reviewed at Cineworld Fulham Road, Central London, Saturday 23 July 2016, 20:40 screening, screen six