A chevalier is a ring worn on the small finger of medieval lords indicating superiority and honors.
Such a ring is the trophy to a game invented by six men stuck on an Athens-returning boat for (at least) 24 hours. The purpose of this game? Who is the best of them all. The men are judged on everything they do: from how high they wear their pants, to their sleeping positions; from whether they can prove everything is well in matrimony, to penis size. Chevalier is a movie on male competition, on insecurities, and on co-existence in a claustrophobic space. It is a movie that will make you laugh with yourself – as you may recognize your own competitiveness, as well as the one natural rule canceling every human substitute: he who is the best in everything wins.
The all-male (and all-star) cast worthily won an acting award at the Sarajevo Film Festival while Chevalier itself won Best Film at London Film Festival, and the mastermind behind it all is the accomplished Directress Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, 2010). We meet during the 45th edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Chevalier now screens. The first screening, just the night before, went well, given that the –mostly Dutch- audience were engaged. In addition, the movie was sold out throughout the event. Tsangari enters the room where our roundtable would take place quietly, calmly wishing good afternoon to all, seemingly anticipating a bombardment of questions. A photographer asks to take a few pictures, to which she agrees. “This is awkward,” she smiles and says. Was she feeling awkward while being the female leader to an all-male cast? “No,” her answer is clear. As she takes a seat amongst us, we could tell she is well aware of who she is, what her status is within the world of cinema, and her worth as a creator.
“It was a challenge, but I didn’t do it to prove myself. I didn’t say ‘I am your boss, I will make you suffer;’ I didn’t let my upbringing as a Greek woman out of my system. It was the opposite of that, actually. It was about debunking all the clichés that involve females and males. And especially in Greece. You would be expecting they would be too macho, they would not like being directed by a woman. I knew that was not true, because I have been working with men all my life without feeling sexism. Sexism is something we reproduce, or invite or entice in our lives. I never felt like that because I also fight for who I am as a human, more than as a woman… And there are glass ceilings everywhere, at every single step of the way, but if you just go through them opting not to see them then you have just some scratches on your skin, but other than that…”
Tsangari describes filming Chevalier as a fantastic experience for all involved – even though she had made sure to cast the most difficult personalities [she] could find. “I knew they were fucking difficult and arrogant and very sure of themselves. It was a social experiment on how they were going to collaborate with each other and how they were going to be in front of each other.”
Yet, they managed to create a hospitable environment for everybody on set. The cast all respected their directress’ position and wishes.
“Oh, I am a woman’- they never made me feel that. It was a very respectful process. I made it very clear I was the director and I knew exactly what I wanted from each one of them. Once this was established, it was a team work and it was based a lot in camaraderie. I would get discouraged and then one of them would just do something and then I would just be back on board; or they would get discouraged about their character because you can imagine there is a lot of insecurity involved- there is a lot of chevalier playing nonstop between all of us. But it was all very civilized. There was not even a single fight. And I think that was because, you know, for each film there is always a situation you need to set up because it is like you are going to war. The rules have to be really clear.”
All in all, Tsangari seemed rather satisfied with her actors – and we believe the ensemble created a stunning performance. But that was no surprise, as they are all accomplished actors. Yorgos Pirpasopoulos has been the president of the Greek Actors Union, Yorgos Kedros has had a remarkable theater career, Vangelis Mourikis has a rich cinema past, Panos Koronis is building his career mostly as a director while Efthimios Papadimitriou is enjoying one success after another since his 2010 breakthrough. But, if there is a surprise here, it would be Greek pop superstar Sakis Rouvas, whose acting attempts thus far had not been received well by critics or audiences. Yet, in Chevalier he is more than decent- he is good. Was that a surprise to Tsangari?
“He was just completely ready to do something like that. He is someone who has absolutely no insecurity because he has achieved his status, he’s got nothing to lose. He was an incredible collaborator. I knew that though. I auditioned him and I was desperate to find someone who was good looking but didn’t have this kind of thing that Greek pretty boys with TV experience have. He is extremely sincere, so dedicated, he is also a diver and I knew that so he understood what he was playing. He would actually dive and bring fish every day and cook it for us, so he was also a caterer! He came prepared, he was learning his lines, he was trying to give the most.”
And how was the collaboration with the pros?
“Yorgos Kedros, who played the doctor, is a big theater actor, great Chekhovian actor, but had never played in a film before. He told my producer one day he had dreams about killing me, so he would come to the rehearsals and be angry, asking all those background questions: ‘Who am I? Who are they? Are they my friends?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I was telling him, ‘stop asking those questions.’ ‘I don’t know if I am staying,’ he said, but after a week he was hooked and he stayed. After they got comfortable it was like a kindergarten. It would take them literally half an hour to stop yacking with each other and showing off their clothes for the day.”
Athina Rachel Tsangari seems a sincere person – which came as something of a surprise. She did not polish her words. She did not hide her anger and disappointment towards the “system” or the fact she has lost faith in governments, now believing in radical activism. Although Chevalier is an allegory, keeping the contemporary Greek drama away, she does not exclude Greece from the conversation. She is able to trace and point out all the characteristics she carries from her homeland. Although she does not like the term Greek Weird Wave (“what does ‘weird’ mean? I hate it. I think it is insulting and reductive”) she insists on Greek-speaking creations. Is promoting such movies difficult?
“When you come from a small country, you feel it’s really coming on its own. My generation, the generation after me- we feel the responsibility of representing the cinema of our country. I take it very very seriously. I wish I was back home in Boston, I really need to finish my script, but it’s just extremely important to be able to meet your audiences… Especially when you come from a country that could just disappear from the map of the earth and no one will give a shit (except for 1,5 months in the summer, then it can reappear) I think that this film, if it was made in English it would be much more commercial. I think it’s difficult to follow the subtitles. At the same time, for a lot of people who do not watch movies with subtitles that is a challenge. That’s one of the reasons I made this film. I wanted fast paced Greek instead of this very sloooooooow silent poetic…”
Tsangari has to rush, as she stays in Rotterdam only for two days, but if there is one thing to keep from this meeting, it would be contemporary how Greek cinema is going strong and has a bright future. Tsangari reassured us she has numerous projects on the way, as her thirst for creation is endless. Given that Chevalier differentiated itself from her previous projects, one would not be wrong to expect a vast pallet of themes she will use to create in the future.
Chevalier, 2015, GR
Directed by: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Written by: Efthimis Filippou & Athina Rachel Tsangari
Cast: Yorgos Kedros, Yorgos Pirpasopoulos, Vangelis Mourikis, Panos Koronis, Efthimios Papadimitriou, Sakis Rouvas, Giannis Drakopoulos, Kostas Filippoglou