Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier” opens with a group of men in wetsuits emerging from the sea in front of a giant rock face. A few beats later they are cruising through the water in a motorboat, bound for a large luxury yacht, as the music, click clacking away, emits the air of suspense. If we had not seen these men tending to fish between these two sequences we might be forgiven for momentarily thinking of them as high tech assassins, or thereabouts, in the midst of a traditional action movie opening. But that semi-feint feels deliberate, setting these men up as something akin to action heroes in their own mind. After all, many of our finest action movies, and many more of our not so fine action movies, are essentially exercises in machismo, like Jason Statham in “Spy” taking himself super seriously to super hilarious effect. And all the guys in “Chevalier” are not entirely unlike Statham’s agent Rick Ford, not so much in their line of work as in their attitude. Because every guy here, even the one revealed as still living with his mother, is probably convinced he is the best in general.
That is a phrase they return to one night when the six principal dudes are sitting around a table playing a game they quickly lose interest in. So someone suggests another game, called Chevalier, where someone assigns someone else a challenge and the challenge is graded. A modification is then proposed – namely, what if they are graded on everything? As in, literally everything they do, the way they sleep, the way they eat, the way they fish, the way they exercise, the way they skip stones, the size of their what-have-ya, any of it, all of it. This way, see, they can determine which of these dudes really is the best in general.
There are echoes here of The Duplass Brothers’ 2012 comedy “The Do Deca Pentathlon”, in which two brothers see their lifelong rivalry through by finally finishing an incomplete pentathlon from their youth. But while that movie was partly about male preening, it was just as much about brotherly complications and deep resentment. Some of that is present in “Chevalier”, given that these men are portrayed as friends, and that two of them are also brothers, but personal identities and backstories, aside from glimmers here and there, often come across beside the point. We barely have any inkling of who these men are off the boat. No, to Tsangari these are often less individual men then one big blob of male ego bobbing on a boat in the Aegean Sea.
If sometimes these challenges come across like a means of passing judgment, or causing humiliation, the idea of winners and losers gradually falls by the wayside, no matter how many grades each man may scribble inside his little notebook. No one wants to lose, of course, but in the context of “Chevalier” even the losers are not strictly bound to losing because everyone here fancies himself incapable of such a fate. They are masters of their own domain. And even if their inherent insecurities seep out in the midst of competition anyway, each man simultaneously remains secure in his own mind of just how great he is, which is “Chevalier’s” niftiest trick and its ultimate point.
At the end, when they reach shore and bid farewell and climb in their cars to drive away, Tsangari holds the shot on the empty road a few beats longer than expected. Why you can practically imagine each man behind his respective wheel saying to his self out loud and with vigor “I’m the best in general.”