One of the best movies of 2015 was a little Greek film titled Chevalier. It was submitted by the country for the upcoming Academy Awards and hopefully there can be some recognition in store since it is a profoundly pulp-induced picture that finds a way to exquisitely balance brutal machoism with endearing nurture. It is unapologetic and earnest in its approach — and I was all the more grateful for it.
What better way to tell a story of masculinity than to thrust it into the world of mother nature, as the entirety of the film takes place on a fishing trip in the Aegean Sea off of Greece. On the glorified boat are six males — all at different points in their respective businesses. What ensues are several days of endless comically absurd competitions to prove to one another who is the most manly.
Men At Sea
The film taking place on a boat in the middle of the sea is a smart move. When one is humiliated at their sudden loss of macho-points, it is not as if they could storm out, can they? Instead, they are all stuck on the boat and forced to take their loss among a parade of judgmental male peers. Only another man can tell you if you are a man — that theory is strikingly pertinent to the plot as each of the characters go to great lengths to win approval from the other men. What do they win? A ring they call Chevalier (a type of knight) that eventually becomes the symbol of maintaining manhood. It is a barbaric game where mercy is stripped naked and forced to don the shining armor that only a manly man can wear.
I had written an essay about the perspective of masculinity through the lens of filmmaking, a lens that has more often than not been associated with violence. That kind of impact may be a leading cause as to why the world is the way it is, but Chevalier is an astonishingly raw piece of storytelling that does not bother to provide answers that can easily be dismantled, but rather only brings about the questions, the real, unflinching questions.
There is Yorgos and Josef, two doomed business partners who arrive on friendly terms only to continue their trip falling prey to the same contradicting manifesto of machoism. They are visiting on the boat of The Doctor, the oldest of the bunch who tries so hard to convince the others of his domineering health that he must smoke cigarettes in secrecy. Yorgos and Josef are fine specimens on their own merit. It is a misconception that men cannot feel insecure about their bodies, which is why — for the sake of the game — it goes beyond what they can show they are capable of, but instead must now venture into bringing out each other’s insecurities (fat-shaming, cholesterol counts).
Much like masculinity, people do not know how to define it because it is a concept that is constantly evolving. This probably makes it one of the most misunderstood notions of misnomers. Just like in the real world, the game has no rules, there is no fair way to play, and you must constantly prove you are capable of playing it at any given moment. None of it makes sense, but who cares, the end result is clear (the ring), isn’t it?
The rest of the cast is filled out by Yorgos’s biggest competition, Christos, who once dated The Doctor’s daughter, but couldn’t keep her. The Doctor’s new son-in-law Yannis and Yannis’s brother Dimitris are the others. Each of them is no different than Yorgos and The Doctor when it comes to their insecurities, but the fact that they are all the same in that the game is all that matters to maintain a sense of honor among men.
The Big Question
The real question for the film is: Does it really matter who wins the f*cking ring? I mean, there is no clear-cut definition of masculinity, which is only part of the reason why it is so misunderstood. I mean, what I might find manly is something that you might find crazy. This is the very point of the film.
The film is shot in a gritty palette rich with only specific colors. The boat and the sky are not what is illuminated. The skin of the male characters are illuminated. The water is illuminated. These specific choices in the cinematography make the film all the more sinister in its objectification of the human psyche.
Just like what Jaws did, the land is not seen in much of the background. It is all water from one end of the frame to the other, as these men are both symbolically and literally trapped. Similarly to Attenberg (also directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari), which dove into the sexual spirit of a female teenage character, Chevalier delves into the male spirit of toughness and testosterone. The film does not intend to lay blame on masculinity and make men feel guilty for trying to obtain it, rather it is an examination of just how complex it is.
When audiences see two men in the same movie scene, they are quick to align it to violence and bloodshed. When defining masculinity, one of the words found in its definition is sexism, which is kind of absurd when you think about it. Using sexism as a synonym for masculinity is just one of many factors as to why it is so condemned and misunderstood today.
The film is directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, who co-wrote it with Efthymis Filippou, whose indie film The Lobster is making the awards round this season. The screenplay is tight and animalistic, reminiscent of the aggressive questions being tackled by the film. The film is in limited release and hopefully, with enough traction, it can get a little bit of a wider one. It is a heartfelt comedy-drama, where feelings are not even remotely mentioned. Instead, it relies on its characters and settings to display that.
What game would you play on a boat with five of your friends?