In the opening scenes of Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier, six well-heeled Greek men on a fishing trip pose with the massive bream they've just caught in a scenic cove off the Aegean sea. We see them help each other out of their wetsuits while amiably joshing about who has the biggest this, that and the other. Affability soon fades, and once the luxury boat weighs anchor and sets out on the return trip to Athens, the men will enter into a bizarre and increasingly hostile competition that will strip them of much more than their rubber gear.
If you've seen Tsangari's 2010 Attenberg, Greece's entry for Best Foreign Film, you'll know that in her goofball-noir way, the director loves to keep us guessing. Rapturously photographed by Christos Karamanis, Chevalier's idyllic setting is sumptuous and serene and smacks of an earnest psychological drama to come. The sly soundtrack seems to suggest a thriller, then keeps throwing us elsewhere. The tone is slow and stately throughout, complicating what is essentially a jaundiced black comedy, a woman's-eye vision of male vanity and all manner of impotence.
The guys — among them a handsome narcissist who's tenderly attentive to every hint of flab in his own heroically built body; a chubby, eager-to-please mama's boy still living with his mother and his feckless brother; and a bearded wonder whose uncontrolled homoerotic aggression alarms his companions — function more as Humors than as flesh and blood. Vain, portentous and puffed-up yet profoundly insecure and competitive, the men run the gamut of masculine pathology as they dream up a contest in which each scores the other on a battery of ludicrously banal criteria (underpants, cholesterol levels, nouvelle cuisine, that sort of thing). The winner, or "Best in General," will repossess a signet ring currently worn by the group's designated elder, a self-serious physician who turns out to be a gifted take-down artist and a windy bag of gravitas ripe for puncture himself.
Chevalier is a one-joke tale, and though it's fun for a while to watch the shenanigans of a bunch of pre-teens with hairier bodies, the movie starts to sag around the middle as it goes around in circles documenting the endless one-upmanship. Just as it starts to feel like a slow-mo version of Dumb and Dumber, there comes a crucial shift in tone, a progressive souring as old wounds are painfully awakened and new ones are cut open. The stakes remain infantile, the black humor never flags, but the competition takes on a sinister savagery as bro-bonding alliances shift and hero-worship curdles into betrayal and resentment. Also, there's blood.
Chevalier begins with a mentor and his protégé rowing in perfect sync on the boat's exercise machines. It ends with the same two men rowing in perfect opposition. Whether that doubles as a political allegory of the recent internecine squabbling among Greece's political and business elites while the economy tanked, Tsangari's not saying. From start to finish, there's not a single true chevalier in this crew, and that includes the servants below, who, far from seeing the light, become infected with the same disease that afflicts their masters. For all the serenity of the ending as the men's fancy cars pull out of their spots among a fleet of expensive yachts, I wouldn't bet the house on a better tomorrow for their country.