The smartest paeans to male camaraderie acknowledge an embarrassing truth: Get a group of guys together and stupid pissing matches may ensue. Blame nature or nurture, testosterone or generations of social conditioning, but the most sensitive and enlightened of dudes—the kind who have never shoved anyone into a locker or paddled a pledge or used the term “white knight”—sometimes find their competitive streak amplified in the company of other men. Because, tough as it is to admit, even us beta males occasionally want to be the alpha. That’s the whole point of Chevalier, a bone-dry Greek comedy about a group of aging friends competing in a nonstop social Olympics of their own creation. The film is set aboard a luxury yacht, but it could just as easily take place in a hunting lodge, the hotel-room home base of a bachelor party, or even in a basement man cave during a long weekend of pizza and video games.
On the tail end of a fishing trip, against the peaceful bob of the Aegean Sea, six grown men kill time ribbing and quizzing each other. They include the unofficial leader of the pack, called simply The Doctor (Yorgos Kendros); two brothers, the snobbish white-collar Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) and his pudgy younger sibling Dimitris (Makis Papadimitriou); and posturing pals Yorgos (Panos Koronis), Christos (Sakis Rouvas), and Josef (Vangelis Mourikis). One night, the boys, pumped up with the spirit of competition, devise an elaborate game to determine who among them is “the best in general.” On the voyage back to Athens, they will evaluate each other on everything, awarding or deducting points based on such criteria as sleeping positions, baldness, and the speed in which one assembles Ikea furniture. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for this proverbial dick-measuring contest to become a literal one.
It’s an inherently funny premise, and writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari scores laughs from both the conversational tactics of her characters—who dig at each other’s failings, fighting a cold war of one-upmanship—and bigger, more absurd displays of confidence, like a lip-sync, fireworks-abetted performance of “Lovin’ You.” Tsangari’s debut, the offbeat coming-of-age story Attenberg, presented a young woman whose ideas about human behavior were shaped by nature documentaries. Pivoting from female to male anxiety, the filmmaker studies her boys’-club ecosystem with a fascination bordering on the scientific. As the men turn their ill-advised game into a gauntlet of perpetual judgment, feelings get hurt and insecurities emerge. Can Josef not get it up? Can Christos not please his wife? And does Dimitris—the Piggy of this (marginally) more civilized Lord Of The Flies, supposedly granted a mere pity invite to the guys’ getaway—have any chance at not placing last?
Tsangari is tough on her characters, but she is not unsparing; certainly there’s more tenderness here than in the deeply deadpan shock comedies of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), whose earlier projects she produced. The warmest moments in the movie are one-on-one, as these constantly competing buddies share secrets, reveal vulnerabilities, and validate each other. The knives only come out when they’re all together, and that disparity seems crucial to the film’s big idea—namely, that as far as male bonding is concerned, it’s pack mentality (and not strength) that often comes with numbers. Chevalier doesn’t have much more to say than that, and as good as its actors are at filling in the separate personalities of these characters, Tsangari could have done more to distinguish them as individuals. But with all the bromances and buddy comedies out there, it’s valuable to encounter a film that treats male friendship like the battle of egos it sadly sometimes becomes.