Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film Chevalier, showing at Cornell Cinema this Friday, understates its oddities and creates a hauntingly realistic picture of humanity. The film draws from various and strange inspirations which result in a Frankenstein-esque human species. But, it remains non-committal. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein directly condemns neither the monster nor his creation, Tsangari only subtly questions specific behaviors, habits and desires. Chevalier disguises itself as the story of six friends on a luxury fishing trip. But, the games they play ask important human questions that leave the viewer distrustful and hesitant to name a winner.
The film opens with Tsangari disclosing another possible source of inspiration — a modern perspective of a Robinson Crusoe-like island. Its inhabitants, the six men in scuba suits, blur the line between human and animal. They emerge from the sea in blurred black shapes like soldiers in uniform. The rugged landscape shrinks the few fishermen and the vast space — both the mountains and the ocean — discount the fishermen’s success. The man emerges from the sea, as if resurrected from battle. But, he is not victorious. Although the men caught enough food to feed their transient desires, naturalness outnumbers human life and the fish always win. This contest is the film’s first competition. The pulling off of each others’ wetsuits shows this stickiness of man’s relationship with nature. Immediately, Tsangari’s fishing trip on a luxury yacht is more than a vacation story. A sense of doom looms in every low hanging cloud and soft spoken conversation. The wetsuit, the nicotine patch, the workout machines, the screens, the intercom — everything around the men serves to alter their bodies and minds. All elements in Chevalier compete.
Chevalier explores the relationship between the wild and the tame. The film, set in the Aegean Sea, follows a group of “friends” on an unconventional vacation, centering on an unusual game comprised of both physical and mental challenges. The game works as a faux focus for what Tsangari exposes as pressing social issues. The Aegean Sea functions as the arena and the six men volunteer as tribute. The film is a mid-life crisis version of The Hunger Games. Even the luxury yacht’s intercom system functions as the actions’ facelessly ominous orchestrator. Tsangari’s directing gives new insight into competition, conformity and cohabitation. She captures the strange ways in which humans interact with each other, with themselves and with their environment. The travelers name their game “The Best in General” and Tsangari examines who or what wins and loses in everything else.
The film satirizes judgment. The game is an experiment in many different ways, the first being that it invites every shallow thought into conversation. Each man’s personal opinions become his idea of excellency and suddenly he’s campaigning for a way of life. The obstinacy with which each player questions and addresses his competition breaks down the fourth wall and extends a sense of awkwardness to viewers.
“The Best in General” attaches man’s affinity for competition to every behavior, syllable and passing glance. It ranks even natural tendencies in order of refinement, excellency and perfection. It threatens to dissociate man from his innate self. One competitor argues, “I think there has to be consistency in terms of common sense.” I’m struck by his theory. Of course common implies a collective idea — a similarity. But it also alludes to a commonality given by birth, not the fertilized kind of biases that develop through well-nurtured growth and education. The game undoes the group’s collective understandings of what is natural, what is human, what is excellent and what is awful. Tsangari brings everything into competition but crowns no winner. She deceives her characters into believing that their minds can be made perfect, their habits entirely healthy and their nature outsmarted. With this lens, the film becomes equal parts comical and uncomfortable.
The scenery, cloaked in dreariness, lends a continual sense of danger to the film. The location is relentlessly unforgiving but each character’s presence plays between harmony and contradiction with his surroundings. In one moment, a man disappears into his environment — Tsangari captures the independent, self-fulfilled man. In another shot, the same man sticks out sorely against the harsh Greek landscape — the director glimpses social constructs at work. Men sparsely speak, color and light skirt the scenery and each player struggles to hide away his inadequacies to win a nameless, undecided prize. Their game’s futility serves only to heighten nature’s superiority. Each man makes a promise to his friend but their words fade away with the horizon. The characters feign connections but retreat to their increasingly private inner thoughts as they retire to their respective cabins — fortifying themselves from the vastness that surrounds them. Every human aspect, both man and his mechanical structures, fades toward conformity, but the natural landscape remains disobedient. In this way, the organic succeeds over the fabricated. Fog descends once again over the Aegean Sea and the human victor of “The Best in General” remains unclear.
Tsangari patches together an artificial society on a Greek yacht. Her interpretation exemplifies the most unusual extremes of social interactions. The product is horror movie creepy. Chevalier is the modernized Prometheus — Frankenstein 2.0. The yacht buoys Tsangari’s fabricated society, absent of women, sincerity and compassion. It’s disharmonious and isolating. The group’s strange game develops into something larger than its players and each character barely maintains control. The men aspire to ever higher standards with Puritanical commitment. They examine each other methodically and relentlessly as if trying to build the perfect man despite the cloudiness of their concepts and surroundings. Their ambitions create something monstrous.
Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.