Greek cinema has become one of the most exciting in the world and something authentic and distinct is emerging.


11 August 2016

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Plot summary

In the middle of the Aegean Sea, on a luxury yacht, six men on a fishing trip decide to play a game. During this game things will be compared. Things will be measured. Songs will be butchered, and blood will be tested. Friends will become rivals, and rivals will become hungry. But at the end of the voyage when the game is over, the man who wins will be the best man. And he will wear upon his littlest finger the victorious signet ring: the ‘Chevalier’.

Greece is renowned for many things: it is the land of myth, of Dionysian revels, of octopuses hung like pantyhose on clotheslines to dry.   It is the land of our first storytelling, birthplace of epics, of comedies, of tragedies; but not, until now, cinematic stories.  As a film industry, there hasn’t been much to talk about except, of course, the exceptions, like Theodoros Angelopolous (Ulysses’ Gaze, 1995, Eternity and a Day, 1998—both won big at Cannes) and Costa-Gavras, who, really, made American movies, like Missing (1982) with Jack Lemmon, or Mad City (1997) with John Travolta, or French movies like Z (1969).  ‘Greek’ films like Never On a Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960) and Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964) were Greek fetishisation made palatable to tourists by having non-Greek lead actors being swarthy.  And being mainly in English.  But suddenly in the last half-decade, and in inverse proportion to its credit rating, Greek cinema has become one of the most exciting in the world.

Christened the ‘Greek Weird Wave’ (rather smugly and dismissively, by Steve Rose in The Guardian) it is the latest of the national cinema movements—like Romanian Cinema in the naughts, or the short-lived Mexican New Wave of the late ‘90s, or the German Neue Kino of the ‘70s— that seem as astounding as they are invigorating.  The Greek surgence stems mainly from the circle working with and around Yorgos Lanthimos.  Lanthimos is not just a new national cinema voice, but one of unprecedented distinction no matter where he would have been making films. There hasn’t been anything like Dogtooth (2009) (a husband and wife keep their children locked away from society and unaware of a world beyond the walls of their garden) or ALPS (2013) (a group offer their services as substitutes for the recently deceased to help mourners acclimatize) or The Lobster (2015) (an alternate present where people must be part of a couple.  If they find themselves single they are sent to a hybrid health spa/work camp to fall in love.  And if they fail that, they are turned into the animal of their choice), at least since Luis Bunuel’s one-man renaissance in the 1970s. Lanthimos produces, acts for, and shares a screenwriter, Efthymis Filippou, with Athina Rachel Tsangari, who has, in turn, produces for him.  Tsangari has made Attenberg (2010) and the London Film Festival Grand Prize winner this year, Chevalier.  These films are not Greek tourist films, but show (as Tarantino said of Attenberg) ‘another Greece.’  Indeed, this startling array of films examine dark human impulses with deadpan humor, absurdity, and surreal bravado.  What has emerged is something that is authentic and distinct.

Chevalier opens with men emerging from the mythic waters of the Aegean, like Nereids and Nerites, or bastards of Poseidon, or Neanderthal hunters.  They are the conquerors of nature and smash octopuses on rocks, because they are men, and that’s what men do.  They are swift and assured—whether making decisions or riding a jet ski—all is a measure of youthful virility.

(There’s been a lot of incredulity about a woman directing Chevalier, a film not only with an all-male cast, but also a film that is, essentially, about the very core of maleness.  How can a woman take on such a project?  How can she know anything about it?  Kathryn Bigelow gets the same thing.)

Back on board the boat, the men exercise on deck—showing off their secondary sexual characteristics, but not for the purposes of attracting a mate but as displays of alpha male maneuvering, the chest thumping in great apes.  Even alone, they strut and grunt—one man does leg lifts while on his computer in his cabin, Skyping his leg muscles to a screen filled with a woman’s mouth.

(Ida Lupino certainly didn’t have it easy.  Having worked for decades as an actress, playing hard-luck dames in Warner Bros. films, she started directing in 1949.  Back then women were expected to be at home, exchanging recipes, and Howard Hughes had just created the under-wire push-up bra that made their breasts look like Cold War defense systems.  But Lupino went on to direct not only films, but for such undomesticated TV shows as Batman and Have Gun will Travel.)

One night, as the men sit around the table, they fall into a game.  Taking turns, they think of an animal that reminds them of one of the others, and the others have to guess who the animal is.  The game quickly gets more preposterous—what if they were a fruit, what fruit would epitomize them?  And if they were a state in the U.S.A.?  Soon it becomes a long game competition: who is the ‘best in general’.  Because competing, being the best, and showing that off, is, as Darwin observed, a biological imperative: it comes down to being able to fling your sperm at as many ova as possible in order to promulgate your genes.  The men will judge each other in everything they do, and arrive at a consensus: who shows the best amount of teeth when they smile, who walks the best, who laughs the best.  Whoever’s best at everything.

(But men are praised for making movies about women.  Cassavetes can make searing examinations of women, and be heralded, or Woody Allen can direct actresses to the most insightful performances of their careers (and Oscars).  But a woman?  Can a woman only make Nancy Meyers movies?)

Of course it’s ludicrous: the criteria are so vast as to be infinite and impossible to judge. How much dental work they have.  What they cook and how well they do it.  And at what temperature.  One man is deemed to wear his pants too high.  Too high for what? It’s subjective.  They have a contest skipping stones.  They have a competition to put together flat-pack furniture from IKEA.  They demand of each other to ‘describe your house’ or reveal their cholesterol level.  Penis size, of course, comes up.

Jane Goodall studied apes, and we trust her, and we never question the fact she wasn’t an ape.  Monica Gagliano has done research on the existence of plant intelligence and plants’ ability to learn.  And plants aren’t even in the same kingdom, let alone the same phylum.  She didn’t need to be a plant.  But if a woman makes films about men, deeply charting men’s psyches, it seems miraculous, or suspect

A group watch how the others sleep: ‘The body posture is too perfect, I don’t like it.’  ‘But the stripes on the underwear are nice.’  ‘There’s drool on pillow, take note.’  One man’s phone goes off and the frog ringtone raises eyebrows.  One belches—the others quickly scribble it down.  One, when alone, chants his affirmations, ‘I don’t have fat thighs. I don’t bite my nails.’

(I mean, why can’t women direct men?  Or more to the point, movies about men? Jane Goodall studied apes, and we trust her, and we never question the fact she wasn’t an ape.  Monica Gagliano has done research on the existence of plant intelligence and plants’ ability to learn.  And plants aren’t even in the same kingdom, let alone the same phylum.  She didn’t need to be a plant.  But if a woman makes films about men, deeply charting men’s psyches, it seems miraculous, or suspect.)

Things get more extreme, more surreal, as the men scramble to accrue points and outdo one another.  There is a lip-synched performance of the song Loving You by Minnie Ripperton with, for the big finish, the lighting of the ship’s distress flares.  The flares are judged as pointless and irrelevant—‘they didn’t fit with the song.’  Another offers an obsequious gift: he slices his hand and offers his blood brotherhood, but there are no takers, except the dim-witted one, Dmitri, who is so low in the hierarchy he is up for anything.  But Dmitri’s squeamish about cutting his hand so bares his bottom and slices his ass.  Grappling to save face they present a ludicrous tableau as hand to ass they are uncertain as to how to proceed—‘Keep it there a little longer.’  Even the kitchen staff get into the competition, placing bets among themselves as to who will be the victor.  As above deck so below, the hackles of virility bristle and a power struggle erupts.

So is Chevalier just unmagical surrealism, a satire on male aggression and competition, like Bunuel’s scathing commentaries on the bourgeoisie?  In fact, are any of the new wave of Greek films merely the cinema of the absurd?  Or perhaps, being Greek, they are attending to a more distant tradition.  The sort of reductio ad absurdum of these films, the taking of a proposition to the very extent of prudence, is, actually, what the ancient Greeks did, from Xenophanes of Colophon to the Chariton of Aphrodisias.  What seemed at first like Bunuelian surrealism is perhaps more elaborately philosophical, examples of the ‘what-if’ thought experiments of Plato and the Socratic Method in Athens during the high Hellenic.

We might stop seeing, say, Dogtooth as a satire on home schooling or the worries about adolescent overexposure to the Internet.  It seems more about the possibility, the feasibility, of preserving the innocence of a human soul in the world.  What if we tried to keep our children away from all influences of society, watching our children develop actual tabulae rasae?  Could we keep them unaware?  We’d have to redefine words we use in everyday conversation and we’d have to feed them impromptu lies.  But what if a plane flew overhead?  We could use a toy plane and throw it out on the lawn when the kids are distracted.  But what if…?  This is actually something Aristotle and the stoic Xeno of Citium both conjured over a jug of Retsina whilst lounging by the marble pool.  (I’m only assuming the Retsina and marble pool parts, but I’m probably right.)

The Lobster, as well, is perhaps less a satire on the urgency of finding a partner, a panic foisted upon us by the propaganda of eHarmony and the mandates of Cosmopolitan Magazine and Sex and the City on catching and keeping a man.  Or you’ll wind up as a big fat loser.  It is surely not a coincidence that those who can’t find love turn into animals.  This, being Greek and all, goes back to the antics of the Olympian gods, where metamorphoses were more common than tattoos in Shoreditch: Io was turned into a cow, Europa was turned into a bull, Actaeon into a stag, and Zeus, of course, turned into a swan in order to rape Leda.  And the themes of The Lobster were no less surreal or ‘weird’ that what Aristophenes presented at Plato’s Symposium: he suggested that people have in their nature the need to be pair-bonded, and this stems from the fact that back in the ancient murk we were all amphoteroi, creatures born with double bodies—male/male, male/female, or female/female—with faces and limbs turned away from each other, but these creatures were cleaved by Zeus, who was pissed off one day.  Like most days.  Since then we’ve always been looking for our other half so we can feel whole.  When we find our ‘soul mate’ we never want to be separated.  That was written in 385 B.C.  Like Plato’s guests’ ‘What if…?’ scenarios, the film raises baldly philosophical discussions.  Is pair-bonding actually a tyranny of nature?  Which is the imperative, free will or the necessity to mate and procreate?  Would the latter render our inner lives, our sovereignty, irrelevant?  What’s the logical extension of free will, then?  Self-annihilation?

Ergo Chevalier: is it just a jokey slam at the ludicrousness of male antagonism?  It takes male competiveness to it’s illogical extreme in order to more fully examine it in philosophical terms.  From Odysseus to Oedipus, Greeks have loved their tests of masculinity; Heliodorus of Emesa wrote of the performative nature of masculinity, Achilles Tatius interrogated the traditional codes of gender, and Homer was all about testing who’s best, in both the Trojan war and, even more importantly, on the journey back home.  As with Chevalier, the idea of the elite masculinity of the Second Sophistic wasn’t just about who can run fastest, lift the biggest weights, eat the most hotdogs.  Unlike the limited maleness of modern times—the shot putter, the lothario, the bully—it’s about wholeness, balance, not the fetishisation of brawn and the denigration of intellect—say, the huff and puff of Bruce Willis or the Hollywood slab of a lone cowboy astride his horse, taciturn, with nothing but contempt for book-learnin’.  It’s about the concept of paideia, possessing intellectual, moral, as well as physical refinement; the ‘best in general’.  In Chevalier—as in Alcibiades, who said ‘nothing could be more important than becoming the best man he could be’— things aren’t settled by an arm wrestling contest, but with sartorial discrimination, the ability to provide for a family, or how many times you brush your teeth.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.  I mean, Daddy’s Home had Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell competing for who was best and never, not once, has anybody reached for a Homeric analogy.  Maybe it’s the Cycladian horizon, the Odyssean azure seas, the language of Euripides.  But I don’t think so.  Aesop, whiling away the afternoons on Lesbos, wrote about tortoises and hares, and no one mistook him for an animal behaviourist.