Director and co-writer Athina Tsangari’s biting comedy Chevalier finds a group of men on a luxury yacht that becomes a pressure cooker for competition. Tsangari discusses developing the film’s aesthetic, designing the silly contests, and working in confined spaces.
Is it possible to determine who, in a group of men, is the very best man? This question is the premise of Chevalier, Athina Tsangari’s clever exploration of power dynamics in confined spaces. When a group of male friends set off on a fishing trip in a luxury yacht, it takes very little time before everything turns into a competition — including personal hygiene. At some point, they decide to judge each other on not just who wins at cards but who is the best overall.
Tsangari’s film is simple in concept but incisive in execution. After the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Tsangari to discuss the importance of this confined space, developing the film’s aesthetic, and how she came up with the absurd contests in the film.
7R: The film is a comedic but scathing critique of masculinity. Where did that idea come from?
AT: I’m not sure I can even say it’s a commentary on masculinity. I’m usually not interested in commenting on anything. It’s a natural continuation of a film I had made before called The Capsule. It’s an all-female cast film about power. How do I obtain power? How do we seduce power? What do we do with power? It was a sort of fantasy/horror film set in an institute in the middle of an unspecified island in Greece.
[quote type = center] It’s supposed to be a fun, leisurely place, and how that turns into labour in a way — the labour of entertainment and of the self. [/quote]
To me, it was really interesting to work with actors of the same gender. This way, the question of power was not confused by the gender issue and gender politics. It was the natural continuation to work with an all-male cast and see how a similar experiment would work with the opposite sex.
Initially, I didn’t even consciously think this is a film about masculinity but about humans. What happens when a bunch of humans are in an enclosed space? It’s not an office. It’s not a prison. It doesn’t have specific attributes. It’s supposed to be a fun, leisurely place, and how that turns into labour in a way — the labour of entertainment and of the self.
7R: How did you choose to set the film on this luxury boat in the middle of nowhere, set against this beautiful background of the rocks and ocean?
AT: I was really interested in self-enclosed, restrained spaces, but at the same time, a space that was somehow supposed to eventually get somewhere. The game was also supposed to get somewhere, and in the end, it does, but it’s kind of irrelevant. The boat goes back to the marina, and the fact that they return to where they originally departed from doesn’t even matter either. It’s sort of a liminal space between the wilderness, the unknown of the sea, and then back to the harbour. It’s some sort of space in between or some sort of purgatory.
7R: A lot of the colour scheme in the film is whites and grey and blues. How did you pick those?
AT: I always work with a very specific palette. There was a very specific palette for Attenberg, as well. It’s a very close collaboration between my DoP, my costume designer, and my production designer. Very specifically, both films were shot during the winter. I like the dull, muted colours, as opposed to this very stereotypical image of Greece as white and blue and sunny.
The exterior palette was something that was very generously offered to us by nature. Inside, we contrasted that by using a palette of primary colors for the actors’ wardrobe to create this contrast between nature and culture.
[quote type = center]I like the dull, muted colours, as opposed to this very stereotypical image of Greece as white and blue and sunny.[/quote]
7R: One of the striking visuals in the film is when the two doctors are on the rowing machines going back and forth. There’s one scene where as they go back they go out of focus, and as they come forward, they come into focus. It’s really interesting movement, and they’re competing but not going anywhere.
AT: You answered it. We set up those little systems of futility inside this general system of the game, which is pointless and futile, into itself. What does it mean, “the best, in general”?
The idea of them rowing on top of a boat was kind of absurd, but at the same time, it’s quite practical. Luxury yachts have exercise machines on them. Again, it’s like wanting to escape and wanting to go out into the wilderness, to escape from yourself and your daily life, but then you bring with you all the accoutrements of what constitutes your quotidian life and your identity.
7R: You mentioned that you set up a bunch of systems of futility on the boat. What were some of the other ones?
AT: The contests themselves — each one was a little evaluation system. But it’s a moot point because these evaluations are completely subjective. To me, someone brushing their teeth three times a day might be excessive. For someone else, it might be too little. And then, somehow, you’re completely prey to someone’s judgement on something that you have set up for yourself as the canon of normalcy.
It’s a game that could escalate and could go somewhere, as expected, in the way a similar genre film would escalate in a comedic blowout or a murder or a huge disaster. We very consciously avoided that. To me, it was quite important to just have this series of mundane, very vulnerable contests between them, that in the end don’t really add up to something. The winner is not necessarily the best one but the one who was the demagogue, the diplomat. He was the one who was playing everyone.
7R: How did you come up with all of these silly contests?
AT: It was something that [co-screenwriter] Efthymis [Filippou] and I had lots of fun writing. Each one of them represented a different fear or desire about self-image. Maybe a third of them actually came out from the actors themselves. We had the basic characters, which were more broadly drawn in the beginning. I always cast actors that I’m really, really interested in as people, as personalities. By casting particular personalities, not just in terms of the acting capability or acting range or acting style of everyone, but how their personalities would complement with each other and be chemically reactive.
All of the actors each contributed a contest, which became their own contest that they were in charge of. Just by rehearsing over and over again, we decided what was fitting in the development of each character, and what was funny but not as essential. It could go forever. You could watch them for hours.
[quote type = center]I always cast actors that I’m really, really interested in as people, as personalities.[/quote]
7R: To what degree was it an improvised, collaborative process with the actors versus scripted?
AT: It was definitely scripted. As we’re rehearsing and adjusting some of the scenes, or adding some new ones, Efthymis was actually part of the rehearsals. He would adapt what was going on. That’s how I usually work. It’s based on a script. It keeps mutating through the rehearsals, getting lots of input from the actors. By the time we shoot, everything is completely precise and set. There is absolutely no space for improvisation.
7R: Given that it’s such a small space and you have scenes with the entire cast in them, how did you capture and cover that?
AT: There was barely any space for anyone to be moving during the scene. The way my director of photography, Christos [Karamanis], and I solved it was by installing sliders on each side. In the big scenes, we had two cameras sliding around them. There weren’t actually people around them. The rest of us were basically cuddling with each other two steps away.
It was a very tight group. It was important when my producer and I were choosing the crew, it was also important to cast for the personalities of this crew that we were going to be working within very, very tight quarters.
The boat actually looks bigger than it was. It’s very deceptive. It was literally very difficult to move around because the walls were wide closing, which is something I’d chosen the boat for. There were very specific places for the camera to be set. It was like a choreography.
It almost had this spaceship feel for it. I didn’t want anything quaint or woodsy. It was almost like something between a spaceship and a luxury apartment. I liked that, to have these references to urban space and outer space in this little floating capsule.