Interview: Athina Rachel Tsangari, dir. Chevalier

Six men, a captain and two chefs on a boat. A competition of points both positive and negative on each and every aspect of their being and conduct. The winner crowned ‘The Best in General’. With Chevalier, Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari exposes the deeply rooted competitiveness of male kind and the unspoken anxieties buried just as deep. She spoke with CineVue’s Matthew Anderson to discuss her latest project, winner of the Best Film prize at last year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Matthew Anderson: The issues of insecurity, expectations of masculinity and the old idea of the alpha male in Chevalier but the characters in the film compete to be ‘The Best in General’: is this a bit of a tongue in cheek joke about these grand traditional themes?

Athina Rachel Tsangari: How can one be the best ‘in general’? It sounds so ridiculous, right? It sounds as equally ridiculous in Greek, if not more. It was to do with more and more people facing their own self-worth, image, abilities and power game playing in general. It is more about the process, and this embedded instinct of competition. That is why the editing of the end of the film is quite subtle – there are some question marks left as to who the actual winner is. When presenting the film at festivals, half of the audience think it’s X and the other half thinks it’s Y. Do you know who won?

MA: If one of them had gone out on a big, glorious finale the ending wouldn’t have worked as well as it does.

AT: That’s another divisive thing and point of discussion. As to whether I chose to not offer a big blowout at the end. It was a very conscious decision from the conversations that Efthymis [Filippou, her co-screenwriter] and I had. In a way the film could not end without having worked with the actors deciding it. The cast were very much a part of that. The progression and development of the story came very naturally due to the interactions of their personalities. The prototypes of the characters were there, they were on the page and then those guys just came and completely possessed them and were possessed by them.

MA: How the characters know each other and events from the past are revealed slowly, patiently: is it a challenge as a writer-director to make such choices?

AT: We wanted to resist the usual exposition of a first act where basically you introduce every character, give the backstory and leave no question marks or doubts about them. We decided against that but it’s a double-edged sword – for some it can be rewarding and for others it can be really frustrating. It also took lots of embroidering by Matthew Johnson, our editor. It was a difficult film for me as I had never really worked with dialogue before and that’s why I made Chevalier – to understand how human speech works in cinema. I’m fascinated by human voices but people weren’t really taking in my movies before this one. We worked a lot in pairs during rehearsals just to build the energies and rapports. In the last few weeks of rehearsals we then all worked together. We built questions and answers, sort of like bird calls in quite a musical way. The music came from the tonalities of their voices. We shot everything in single takes from the beginning to the end over and over again like theatre, without breaking the shots. That meant everyone was always ‘on’. Because we had constantly moving, sliding cameras ever actor knew that at any point it would be their turn to be onscreen. They were amazing.

MA: The film focuses very much on the male psyche but comes from a female director’s perspective. What was it like collaborating with Efthymis in the writing of the script?

AT: It was quite effortless, actually. Having made The Capsule, which was a short film with an all- female cast, I really wanted to see what would happen if it was an all-male cast and was attracted by the idea of continuing to investigate power through a homogenised group. And in this case a group of the same sex. Efthymis has a very caustic sense of humour and I have another. They are not really compatible. It was lots of sitting down and exchanging contest ideas but from the beginning we did have some points that we just agreed upon, in terms of no huge dramatic arcs or revelations in the end or a big blowout. It was to be a slow-burn comic drama. We had a prototype script when we started rehearsing that we knew was going to change a lot. Neither he nor I were resistant to that, we welcomed it. I was really lucky because two or three times a week he would come to the set, take the transcripts of the rehearsals from my assistant director and rewrite some of the scenes. It was a rare and great gift to have my co-screenwriter in the rehearsal space.

MA: This was always going to be a male-only affair but whose decision was it to isolate the men on a boat?

AT: First it was going to be in a house but then as we were writing I just realised that I was going to be very bored. I didn’t want to film in a house again because The Capsule was inside a big 18th century house on an island. So in the spur of the moment, as we were having a drink, I said “Let’s just move it onto a boat. And shoot it in the winter, it’s going to be tough and challenging and great stuff will come out of it or we’re totally going to fail but it’s going to be interesting to try.” So Efthymis said “You’re mad, but let’s do it.”

MA: Shooting in wintertime there are lots of dark grey skies, and a lot of the film takes place at night: was that chosen to further isolate the men?

AT: That kind of light really suits me. The summer sun and summer light in Greece is inexorable and I’m not sure how to use it yet but I feel quite comfortable with winter light. Also it was nice because the sea was empty, there were no motorboats or ferry boats of tourists everywhere. It was almost like a lost sea, quite solitary, deserted and in the middle of everything around us falling apart. It seemed quite fitting.

MA: Were events in Greece at the time purposefully factored into the film, appearing in the background?

AT: It was not a conscious and direct action but we were, in effect, a bunch of disappointed lunatics who escaped on a boat for a couple of months. We started playing this futile game that mirrored the futile game that was going on on the land. But that’s something I started seeing more when I edited the film. While we were making it no-one talked about that. The words ‘Greeks crisis’ make me break into hives but is it quite a dark film and this is the place I was when I made it.

MA: Do you think that changing representations in the media have made men more self-aware?

AT: I think the male psyche is a big mystery to males yourselves. In my experience there is an equal insecurity about weight, appearance, beauty, intelligence or success amongst my male and female friends. It’s just that you men don’t really talk about stuff like that and we do. All the time. So it’s just a matter of being open enough to disclose these kind of neuroses. Maybe some kind of liberation of men as well as women… I am interested in male representation and how men are afraid or refuse to disclose themselves into the public sphere and between each other. Although in intimate situations, it’s the truth. You guys are worried if you have large thighs or big bellies, if your hair is falling out. There is this cliché of the insecure woman just because we have been the objects of cinema directed by men so there is a phantasmal spectrum and spectres of our genders up on the screen. It’s a worthwhile goal to switch that around. The last thing I wanted to do was to ridicule or make fun of men. I love men and there was so much tenderness between all of us, so much generosity by the cast. I knew that they would be brave enough to reveal their vulnerability. And they would be brave enough not to appear brave on the screen; to shed their defences and exposes themselves to each other – and they did. It’s just human hues that we developed on that canvas that we worked with.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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