Manhood-measuring contests — in every imaginable sense of the phrase — are taken to brazenly literal extremes in “Chevalier,” the long-awaited third feature from Greek multi-tasker Athina Rachel Tsangari. Markedly different in focus and emotional temperature from her 2010 breakthrough, “Attenberg,” this committedly deadpan comedy of manners, morals and men behaving weirdly boasts a contained conceit seemingly ripe for unfettered absurdism: On a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea, six male acquaintances embark on a rigorous series of personal and physical challenges, mercilessly grading each other to determine who is “the Best in General.” That Tsangari resists escalating the conflict, counting on subtle political insinuations to emerge as these perplexing social Olympics wear on, will leave as many viewers enervated as amused, but it’s an expertly executed tease.
That “Chevalier” is bowing in Locarno’s rarefied competish strand, rather than following “Attenberg” to Venice, suggests the new film is unlikely to match its predecessor’s relative breadth of international distribution, though it should enjoy numerous stops on the festival circuit. It remains to be seen, meanwhile, how the growing bracket of feminist and gender-focused fest programming will embrace a film in which not a single female character appears — even if its perspective on male group psychology is implicitly, and fascinatingly, feminine.
Since the magnetizing success of the Tsangari-produced “Dogtooth” in 2009, critics have been more vocal in identifying a “new wave” in Greek cinema than the disparate filmmakers it comprises. Between them, however, they may have inadvertently fashioned a distinct, film-traversing story world characterized by certain heightened modes of expression and behavior: The arguably sociopathic antics of the core sextet in “Chevalier,” profoundly eccentric in and of themselves, attain a peculiar kind of rationality in the fictional universe that Tsangari tangentially shares with such peers as Yorgos Lanthimos — whose regular collaborator, Efthimis Filippou, tellingly takes a co-writing credit here. (None of the pic’s prickly fishing buddies are transformed into actual lobsters, but one can hope.)
The premise is at once simple and outlandish, as well as foreplay-free. In all but one case, no explanation is offered as to the bond uniting the six principals, whose interactions don’t betray any close friendship, or why they have clubbed together on an expensive maritime vacation without their respective families. There’s a noticeable age gap between the group’s youngest and oldest members, though they appear to vary even more widely in terms of class and social status. At the top end of both spectra is an elegant sixtysomething GP known only as the Doctor (Yorgos Kendros); bringing up the rear in most respects is Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou), a schlubby milksop of indeterminate profession who still lives with his mother — and isn’t permitted to go in the water.
It turns out Dimitris is present by way of pity, as his tersely bullying older brother, Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos), reminds him with too much venom; more benevolent in his approach is confident alpha type Yorgos (Panos Koronis), while Josef (Vangelis Mourikis) and Christos (Sakis Rouvas) occupy the middle ground. It might take viewers some time to distinguish each man’s individual identity — Tsangari and Filippou avoid pat archetypes — though the characters come into sharper relief once the aforementioned competition is proposed, livening up a hitherto awkward game night. The purpose of this long-term masculinity test is as hazily defined as its reward — the title refers to a signet ring to be worn by the ultimate champion — but the men throw themselves into it with aplomb.
The individual challenges range from the farcically mundane (an IKEA flatpack assembly race on the prow of the yacht) to the more invasively intimate, as the men verbally arouse each other to compare erection sizes. Tsangari doesn’t neglect the rich comic potential of this puffed-up oneupmanship; one setpiece involving fireworks, breakdancing and Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” reps a shot of screwball hilarity amid the dourer drollness. Yet there’s a sterner subtext to such lunacy, as the men’s petty competitiveness brings deeper-seated insecurities to the fore. Whether auds wish to read this as a broad statement on the human condition or an oblique metaphor for Greece’s drifting class structure in the age of economic crisis is up to them; an upstairs-downstairs dynamic is brought to proceedings via the detached, bemused perspective of the yacht’s staff.
Tsangari has no interest in guiding our interpretation, running in place with her ultra-arch joke until a deft double bluff of a conclusion. Likewise, she demonstrates and encourages little empathetic preference for one character over another — the advantageous outcome, perhaps, of a female filmmaker’s view on an exclusively, and aggressively, male rivalry. There’s a hint of feminist relish in the way “Chevalier” depicts the kind of personal infighting and aspirational comparison more commonly attributed in popular culture to women than men: “My thighs aren’t fat,” one of the guys repeats to himself in a bathroom-mirror pep talk, deliciously reversing at least one hoary gender stereotype.
The ensemble players, in keeping with the film’s democratically dispassionate approach, are uniformly perceptive, suggestive and vanity-free, with no one player attempting to seize the spotlight. The pic’s sleekly understated craft contributions are similarly sensitive to tone and directorial intent, with Christos Karamanis’ exactingly framed, seawater-hued lensing passively dictating focus. Only in her soundtrack selections, which range from Mark Lanegan to Petula Clark to throbbing EDM, does Tsangari lead with her oddball side: That it’s sometimes hard to tell if the music in a given scene is diegetic or not is just one of “Chevalier’s” many needling ambiguities.