Chevalier is a sly Greek satire about six middle aged men vactioning on a luxury yacht who decide to play a “game” where they compete to see who is the “best at everything”. They compete to see who is the fastest to help in an emergency, who sleeps with the best posture, who gets an erection the fastest, whose wife exudes the most adoration during a late night phone call – they literally try to judge each other on every imaginable criteria so they can pick a ‘winner at life’.
The movie is very well made: naturally the challenges have to keep escalating the longer the contest goes on, and of course it all ends in (nonfatal) bloodshed, but each round of ante-upping remains grounded in reality. Chevalier functions as a comic take-down of toxic masculinity, but the characters retain their humanity instead of becoming Will Ferrell-ish caricatures; they feel like (insecure) people, not like straw-men built to over-emphasize a particular point.
(That said: while the film is not Ferrell-ish, it does feature a man I can only describe as Greece’s John C. Reilly. At one point he does a choreographed lip-sync performance of a disco song in a futile attempt to impress the other competitors, most of whom have written him off as a total dunce. He is a goddamned delight.)
Now, there’s a lot that can be said about Chevalier as a film, but I’m actually writing today because I want to explore Chevalier as an experience.
You see, Chevalier is one of those rare movies that’s built on a premise so engaging that you can't really watch it without imagining how you would react if you were in a similar situation. If you were forced to play the best-at-everything game with your friends how would you rank? Would you win? Would you create grading categories that were tilted in your favor or would you try to be a good sportsman? Would you lose your mind a bit from all of the pressure?
What interests me the most about this particular thought experiment is that I found it to be rather unthinkable. As I was sitting in front of the TV I mentally time travelled to the last group holiday I participated in, picked five of my fellow beach house guests and then tried to stack myself against them. And… I got stumped rather quickly. I’m more risk-adverse compared to friend [x], but I’m also more well versed in pop culture; I'm more put-together than friend [y] but less handsome. How do you compare those apples to those oranges?
Or, more importantly, how do you decide “best” when your only options are so imperfect? I think that my friends and I are broadly similar, in that we are somewhere in the middle of the pack – we’ve made a living but we aren’t rich, and we can live with most of our life choices but that doesn’t mean we are excited about them. We are a group of ambivalent everyday Joes that doesn’t naturally lend itself to superlatives, so trying to pick one of us as ‘the best’ is kind of a fools errand. And I think we’re fine with that, because again: we're an ambivalent bunch.
Which obviously gets at Chevalier’s main sociological point: my friends and I are more emotionally secure than the six men in the film, so of course we would be less likely to take such an absurd ‘game’ so seriously. We're the sort of sensitive enlightened bros who have made conscious efforts to transcend that sort of alpha-male silliness and we can admit to our failings without fear of looking ‘weak’.
While I do believe that what I just said is true, I also think that it is entirely possible that the main reason why I was so quick to swat away Chevalier’s thought experiment is because I’m a little too vain to be completely honest about how egotistical I can be.
Consider this: there is a Japanese movie called After Life where some characters who have recently passed away spend a week in Limbo trying to recreate their single favorite memory of their time on Earth. When I watched that movie I empathized with its characters, and I thought long and hard about which memory I’d pick if I was in their shoes. But did I put myself in those characters’ shoes because I’m just like them, in that I also have many sentimental memories? Or did I put myself in their shoes because doing so was easy and flattering?
When I was watching Chevalier I put myself in its character’s shoes, but then decided that those shoes did not fit me. Was that because I’m not actually like them or because I don’t want to be just like them? It probably says something about me that I'm empathetic enough that I could understand exactly why these men were behaving like madmen even though I don't share their insecurities… And it probably also says something about me that I can’t (or won’t?) see myself as being exactly like them, even though I’m well aware that I can be petty and obsessive and overly competitive, too.
Which begs the question: what, exactly, is that something that is being said about me? The fact that I wouldn’t literally play the best-at-life game doesn’t necessarily mean much because that game was clearly designed to be a metaphor. Just because I think comparing myself to my peers in every respect is pointless doesn’t mean that I’m not prone to comparing myself to my friends in smaller - but still artificial and reductive - ways.
Unfortunately, I can't really offer much of a conclusion to that begged question. Which feels a bit like a cop out…
But which is also completely fair, because the questions that Chevalier raises are so open-ended that you could debate them for centuries without ever coming to a real answer. (Trust me: I spent four years debating “what does ‘best in life’ even mean” when I was in college.) As such, Chevalier (or any other well-crafted exploration into those big philosophical queries) isn’t really the sort of thing that prompts definitive answers. No, it is the sort of thing that prompts open-ended pub arguments. So if you want to get a drink sometime soon shoot me an email and we can arrange a meet up where I will argue with you about all kinds of big idea navel-gazing BS...
But I should warn you: I will probably win that argument, because I am very good at arguing.
(Not that I’m competitive or anything.)