Chevalier, the Greek Weird Wave and Angela Carter’s Archetypes of Pornography

Tom Kalin finds Athina Rachel Tsangari's unique new film occupying the territory between a funny Lord of the Flies and a Polanski flick.

“But our flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else does. We may believe we fuck stripped of social artifice; in bed, we even feel we touch the bedrock of human nature itself. But we are deceived. Flesh is not an irreducible human universal.”
– Angela Carter

A stone cliff looms over a distant shoreline. Overhead, birds cry. Tiny figures emerge from the surf, clad in black scuba suits. The image is a bit scorched, sun-bleached. Later – closer – these as-yet-unnamed men pose with their fresh catch on a yacht bobbing in the Aegean Sea, jockeying with what appears to be good-natured rivalry. Or is it?

In Chevalier, the third feature directed by the multi-talented Athina Rachel Tsangari, the deadpan eye of the camera surveys the film’s entirely male cast with a knife’s-edge concoction of the absurd and the real. We linger on every bulge and sagging bump of these plump middle-aged bodies as they squirm out of rubber wet suits, peeling them off like too-tight banana skins. (On the phone to his wife, one of the men later whines, “Do you think my thighs are fat?”) Literally adrift at sea for much of the movie, we’re also a world away from 23-year-old Marina, the thorny, funny, unique protagonist of Attenberg, Tsangari’s previous feature from 2010.

We’re also far away from comparable all-male cinematic landscapes like Claire Denis’ magnetic Beau Travail. Though these two movies are quite distinct, Tsangari, like Denis, somehow manages to create a completely absorbing world on screen while simultaneously challenging me to think about its construction. Happily, Tsangari is too wooly and weird to be pigeon-holed as didactic and Chevalier evoked odd, jostling reference points: a sort of loopy, grown-up version of Lord of the Flies (if it were funny and set on a boat) and the two superb movies-on-the-ocean by Roman Polanski: Knife in the Water and Bitter Moon.

Five men have gathered on the yacht of a wealthy doctor (Yorgos Kendros). Though I’ll attempt here to neatly summarize them, the experience of watching the movie is a hazier affair, as characters gradually emerge from the ensemble and resist easy reduction to type. (No easy buddy-movie tropes here.) Intriguingly, their differences in age and class remain unexplained. We meet Christos (Sakis Rouvas), married to the doctor’s daughter; two constantly bantering business associates, the still-horny-at-70 Josef (Vangelis Mourikis) and slyly confident Yorgos (Panos Koronis). Mama’s boy Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou) still lives at home and is derided by nearly everyone, particularly his older brother, the insurance agent and bully Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos).

Floating under open skies, the comfortable yacht nonetheless quickly becomes claustrophobic, isolated on the vast sea. As men left to their own devices often do, the guys devise a series of games to amuse themselves and to test the boundaries of civility and the balance of power between them. They start with the “if you were an animal, which one would you be?” game and the forlorn Dimitris suggests his friend “looks like a panda because his body type exudes kindness,” to the mockery of the rest. From there they descend to “if you were a piece of clothing?” (a blue vest); “if you were a fruit?” (a pineapple); “if you were a lighter?” (plastic or expensive?). Finally, they decide to figure out who is “the best in general” through a series of manly challenges (including testing who can assemble an IKEA bookshelf the quickest). At the end of the trip, when they arrive in Athens, the lucky one among them will win a Chevalier ring.

No aspect of the public performance of identity is too mundane for scrutiny and in one of my favorite exchanges we see one man take another down for his ringtone, which sounds like a “ribbiting” frog.

“Why did you choose that ringtone?”

“My son went into the settings and he chose it.”

“Someone may give you an awful shirt but once you put it on, the bad choice is no longer theirs.”

Scripted by Tsangari and Efthymis Filippou, Chevalier takes the men’s ridiculous proposal seriously and along the way the film careens from effervescent comedy (involving sweetly wiggling dancing to Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” by the light of sparks from a signal flare) to cringe-inducing displays of needy male vanity (Josef brags below deck naked in his cabin, bathrobe open, displaying what he calls his “beautiful erection”). Your own reaction to this particularly hilarious and convulsive sequence is as good as any barometer of whether this film might be your particular, um, cup of tea.

As a filmmaker, I know something about the mix of appreciation and discomfort felt when critics attempt to synthesize disparate films into a coherent “movement”. So I’m hesitant to claim this film for the so-called “Greek Weird Wave,” which includes the films of her frequent collaborator Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth and The Lobster. (Filippou also works regularly with Lanthimos.) Whatever is happening within and between this talented pool of exciting filmmakers, it’s compelling to watch.

Writer Angela Carter, perhaps best known for her fiction, also wrote one of my favorite books of “theory”: The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. In it, Carter reclaims Sade as an unlikely hero. In her lucid, crystal-clear polemical prologue, she writes, “Myth deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances.”

Deriding the simplistic archetypes of most pornography and calling instead for complicated narratives that also include hot sex, Carter describes the limits of archetypes and in so doing, indirectly comments on what makes Chevalier a special film:

“Any glimpse of a real man or a real woman is absent from these representations of the archetypal male and female. The nature of the individual is not resolved into but is ignored by these archetypes, since the function of the archetype is to diminish the unique ‘I’ in favor of a collective, sexed being which cannot, by reason of its very nature, exist as such because an archetype is only an image that has got too big for its boots and bears, at best, a fantasy relationship to reality. All archetypes are spurious but some are more spurious than others.”

From short experimental videos (Third Known Nest) to installations and live performances of music and film (My Silent One) to feature-length narratives (Swoon, Savage Grace), Tom Kalin’s award-winning work has been screened throughout the world. A producer of the films I Shot Andy Warhol and Go Fish, he was also a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury. He is a Columbia University Professor in film, teaching directing.