With the shimmering waters of Lake Maggiore beckoning mere blocks from Locarno's cinemas and the heat here wilting and cruel, how teasing for Athina Rachel Tsangari to set her much-anticipated third film, Chevalier, entirely on a luxury yacht bobbing in the Aegean. I believe many of us have high hopes for Tsangari, a Greek filmmaker who rose to prominence producing Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth and Alps and directing Attenburg, which was far superior to Lanthimos's Greek films, and similarly in this nouveau Greek cinema style of blending art cinema with conceptual art. I wondered, as many no doubt did, at Chevalier's absence from Cannes (whose competition included Lanthimos's leap to English production, The Lobster) and Venice, which had previously supported this new, provocative Greek cinema. Was the film too daring for these wary red carpet competitions? The answer is no; in fact, Chevalier is a far more approachable film—slyly so—than Attenberg, and the answer to the question of festival placement politics may be that rather than a leap forward from the director, she has made a small-scale chamber farce at sea.
Exchanging Attenberg's female duo for a quintet of wealthy men vacationing on this glorious yacht, they fish, they swim, fine dine, and so on, almost ready to head back to Athens when, on the last night and after several lame attempts at recreation, someone proposes a game called "the best at everything in general." It is a game with no real rules except that each shipmate is allowed to judge the others on matters of behavior, belief, speech, habit, and so on. Included amongst these judgements—how a man sleeps, whether he smokes, how he makes a sea urchin salad—are several petty challenges, imaginative and otherwise, which are also judged: dick pics, how one lies to a loved one, the speed at which one can build an Ikea-like shelving unit. If you are familiar with Attenberg and the films of Lanthimos this may sound familiar: a closed social group who tacitly agree to follow strange rules of an even stranger game, and in the engagement with these rituals and rules the people adhering to them not only appear absurd, but the absurdity implicitly criticizes the external social or political structures these games are meant to parody slantwise.
So indeed, an all male group of wealthy layabouts amusing themselves with arbitrary judgements that they are by turns over-invested in and totally dismissive of, all while floating offshore of Athens seemingly a world away from anything actually happening in Greece: here clearly is a surrealist allegory of the fluid nonchalance of self-governing patriarchy. This is, to be honest, somewhat expected of this film and others like it. What is surprising is that Tsangari and her co-writer (Efthymis Filippou, who also co-wrote The Lobster) keep the absurdity from transgressing into the truly bizarre; whereas films like Alps and Attenberg pushed its characters' play past a point of "plausible" drama and into a realm performance art, Chevalier keeps its earnest silliness in check, so the strangest elements, such as the five black monoliths left on board after the shelf-building competition, or an impromptu lip-syncing performance, are hardly as alienating as one would expect from this filmmaker, especially considering her previous short film, The Capsule. The result, to put it inadequately, is that Chevalier is in fact restrained and accessible, its humor one of refined absurdity, comic restraint and dignity, in keeping with its group's all-around respectability and averageness.
I think it is in this decision to stage an arbitrary game of luxurious one-upmanship as a kind of polite cinematic parlor game—the production is surprisingly limited, much in the way I spoke of about Cosmos: it feels like the cast and crew rented this boat, so this was their resource, and so this is the reach of their cinematic world—that it is this lack of transgression or severe bite that is in fact the most intriguing thing about Chevalier. I admit I kept longing for the film to take this beyond, to go one step further, to advance towards insanity or even take the narrative beyond the yacht and (mostly) bloodless game-playing. There is a sense, in fact, of complicity, that Tsangari is somehow not satirizing a certain class of Greek men and the way they engage with each other and the world, but rather is joining them for their fun—a kind of embedded fictional filmmaking. This is its bizarreness: its lack of true weirdness, its severe, critical eye shaded. On first glance, it appears a lark. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
Over in the Marlen Khutsiev retrospective—as you may be able to tell if you've been reading my dispatches, it is the essential place to be in Locarno—this director too is belaying expectations. For a filmmaker who so often has included or alluded to the missing father figures of his generation—fathers who fell in combat during the Great Patriotic War—Khutsiev's unusual period film that languishes in the days immediately after the war, It Was the Month of May (1970), does not finally tell the story of the men of this lost generation. It may seem to at first, beginning with a small Soviet squad bivouacked on a German farm, leisurely evoking the meandering, confused and exhausted downtime the army felt immediately upon the cessation of hostilities. But after a day of flirting with the farmer's wife and a night of drunken, song-filled camaraderie, just as some of the soldiers are joyriding around the countryside, Khutsiev interrupts them with his characteristic intercession of documentary footage: they stumble across an abandoned concentration camp.
The men explore this camp not knowing what it is, guessing that the furnaces are boiler rooms and wondering at the showers that we know, but they do not, are meant for extermination. Upon returning to their farm, they find that a few ex-prisoners have showed up, offering shell-shocked hints of the horrors they experienced, including one man who says his wife was burned and her ashes spread across this farm's fields. (In a moving gesture towards the present, one ex-prisoner tries to hush the other, chastising him for denigrating his homeland, despite its crimes.) The movie from here goes nowhere: the soldiers are shocked, the prisoners are nearly dead, and we all hang together in the night, weary and afraid, the scale and scope of these men's war—momentarily thought kaput, as the German farmer puts it—yawning wide and unresolved.
In a terribly moving and unexpected jump, Khutsiev cuts to more documentary footage: Russians in 1970 walking down the street, Russian women of the day, people very much alive and seemingly eons away, then a cut to photos from the camps, then to tourists going through the camps, and ending with a heartbreaking shot of a young Russian boy of 1970 wandering past the camera much in the same way as the Jewish boy in infamous photo from the Warsaw ghetto. This film, believe it or not, was made for Soviet television, and it is an evocation and a challenge to history and to contemporary audiences equal to Night and Fog. It is hard to believe such an exploration of historical limbo could be made, a film where almost nothing happens except for the realization of the survivors that only part of what they experienced was over with the war. And for Khutsiev, the additional sadness that film does not fill in a gap between himself and his father's generation, but rather points to a further gulf, that his father knew nothing of the Holocaust and that those that follow live with that awareness.
In the evening, I returned to the lakeside harbor to end the day with something more spare and light: Deux Rémi, deux, Pierre Léon's slim, comic adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Double. Taking as sensitive and amusingly absurd an existential crisis usually turned into far more grim movies, Léon blesses his film with an impeccable cast culled mostly from a small filmmaking circle: director Serge Bozon plays Rémi's brother, Truffaut's enchanting granddaughter plays the young woman who loves Rémi, film historian Bernard Eisenschitz plays his boss, New Wave secret member Jackie Raynal his mother, and so on. They conspire to create a little community of moral beings for the shy flaneur Rémi to ping pong between once he discovers he has a double—more suave, more assured, and more popular—who seems to be phasing him out of his own life. With precise, sensitive decoupage, Léon strips Rémi's life down to the simplicity of home-work-love-family-city, offering in each a gentle smile at, first, this sweet loner's daft existence, and then his mounting anxiety when provoked by his exact better. A light touch, a refined vision, and careful, discreet consideration brings out from this cast of characters a challenge to this blinkered young man to step up and embrace the world. Of course, this being cinema, that means a fight and a kiss, and the lovely simplicity of this denouement is completely in keeping with Deux Rémi, deux's refreshing, intelligent limpidity.