Learn it by heart, competition is good. This retooled corporate mantra – Gordon Gekko’s infamous variant has been side-lined for fear of public opprobrium – is no new invention, but rampant capitalism has set it free in recent decades. Now we must compete for success in all walks of life, crushing rivals along the way. It’s this attitude, particularly the archetypal masculine variety that Athina Rachel Tsangari sends up to such great effect in Chevalier.
The set-up is a simple one. Co-written by Tsangari and Yorgos Lanthimos’ regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou, six men travel around the coast of Greece on a luxury yacht. Days are spent scuba diving, fishing, eating, drinking and playing stupid games. An unwillingness to accept the validity of one such game leads to the creation of an all-encompassing variant, “the best in everything”. The rules are simple and fiendishly undefined. Armed with notepad and pen, they grade each other on a number of set competitions, and pretty much every aspect of daily life. One moment they might be racing to put together IKEA shelves on deck, the next they compare notes on someone’s posture while sleeping. The winner gets a chevalier ring.
There’s a delightful looseness to much of the film. The competition ramps up unevenly, surging forward during group contests and edging on incrementally the rest of the time. Caution reigns at first with only the occasional notation before spiralling out of control with the likes of an extremely odd erotic reading contest to measure the size of erections, and a medical check-up to judge everyone on their health.It works because the characters interact naturally, and sink into the fight for supremacy together. They’re certainly a disparate bunch ranging from an elegant elderly Doctor (Yorgos Kendros) to alpha male Yorgos (Panos Koronis), self-doubting Christos (Saki Rouvas) and Josef (Vangelis Mourikis), pitiable insurance salesman Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) and his kind-hearted and useless brother Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), a chubby buffoon who sticks close to Yorgos. The fight for the chevalier ring forges strange alliances and yet is remarkably guileless. Little is done to openly cheat, even if Yorgos goes overboard in his efforts to butter up potential supporters. Secret opinions do come to the forefront however, ones that were better left unspoken.
There are moments of lag along the way, the low-key style descending into quiet spells as they mill about on deck before the next round of point scoring, but Tsangari marshals her concept well, moving it through the extremes as these foolish men find themselves unable to avoid efforts to outdo each other. No big bang ending concludes the frequently amusing proceedings, just a simple off-screen tally and the sight of the weary warriors heading off to their separate lives. Throw a bunch of men together and it seems the urge to compete is a hard one to suppress. It’s also likely to lead to strange and self-defeating behaviour.