And If Some God Shall Wreck Me in the Wine-Dark Deep

by Declan Tan

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Speaking to Athina Rachel Tsangari—Winner of the Best Feature award at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival
Chevalier is an unusual film, one that has just quite deservedly won Athina Rachel Tsangari the Best Feature award at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. About a group of six men returning from a fishing trip, each connected by family, marriage, or work, their strained and strange relationships change as they start to play a dangerous psychological game. As they begin to break each other down, their internecine tricks expose not only their vulnerabilities and insecurities, but the audience’s too. Chevalier is another film in Tsangari’s brand of fictional wild life documentary, observing of humans and their behaviour, much in line with her previous feature, Attenberg. If you get a chance to see this, there’s much to gain. But if you don’t, it’s a game you’re surely already playing.

How was this film first conceived?

It started with two images. One image of little black things emerging from the water against a big rock—and the other image was men, in particular, peeling off each other's skin, literal skin. I didn't know what these images were. I started interrogating them; I started fantasizing about what these little bobbing things were in the sea. There're usually such visceral images like that that are completely fantastical and also kind of impossible to make in cinema, so they pose a challenge in terms of understanding where they come from and understanding how I could make them happen as an independent filmmaker from Greece. I thought it would be fun if those little spikes: bobbing, floating things were men who could be, depending on where I took it, part of a science fiction film.

You would classify it as a science fiction film?

It's not a science fiction film, but when I start working on the premise, it helped me abstract it enough so that it's not only limited to what the story's supposed to be. For example, the boat I chose specifically because there was something a bit space-like about it with the white lacquered walls. I didn't want something that was wood-y. It had to be more sleek, streamlined. So we added a lot of mirrors, the way I shot the sea it was as if it was some kind of primordial and unknown space. It's more like I feel like I have a very instinctive and visceral function that I have combining the camera work and the choice of space and the choice of light.

How does that view of the sea and everything around these characters fit into what they eventually start doing, how they start behaving and treating each other? Is there any connection, because they're reactions are very human?

I hate being specific about these kinds of metaphors because I don't compose the script this way, but at the same time I like combining things that don't necessarily fit snugly in a story or the formalism of the film. The more I see the film after I'm done editing and the more I talk about it, it's almost like talking to your shrink. The more you see your film up on the screen, the more it's talking back to me. There is this whole cycle that happens in the film, that they come out of nowhere of this live, primordial matter, which is some kind of belly, some kind of womb. They come out of that. They then go through a journey which is basically a contest with themselves and with others. The vessel of the journey spits them out into the city.

Do we know for certain who was wearing the Chevalier ring at the end?

No, but you didn't understand who was the winner?

I thought it was [spoiler] because of his attitude and swagger.

Yeah. I didn't try hard to make it very clear. Lots of people catch that it's him who's wearing the ring when he mounts the motorcycle in the end. Some other people don't, but it's ok because it doesn't really matter.

But you don't see it like that. When you watch the film back now, does that interpretation seem more viable?

Yeah, I can see that. Although, we shot the film a year and a half ago, so that was before all these recent developments, but we're Greeks and we're under the spell of this.

Do you think Greek audiences see it like that? Do you think the audience would make that connection and see that it's a film about these men who are kind of obsessed with themselves and how their own self-belief comes from the diminishing of others? Do you see the way that they behave as trying to elevate themselves by pushing everyone else down?

I think they're all equally insecure and equally competitive, but I don't think that's a characteristic of Greek men, or the Greek government. I think it's universal. I think this boat could be anywhere and these men could be of any nationality and it would still make sense. And also it could be a group of women. The chevalier is a game that could be played with everyone all day long. It's our instinct as humans—talking about another wildlife documentary, because I really see life around me always as wildlife and I like using a magnifying lens or a telephoto lens or a microscope dissecting in detail this kind of behaviour of wildlife, the human wildlife. It limits it to talk about it as parable and Greece or Europe or politics or the crisis. Also I break into hives every time I hear the word "crisis."

Is that because of the way you feel about it personally?

Because it's a very reductive state, a reductive regimen for all of us Greeks and it's a discourse that keeps perpetuating itself without ever being resolved. I wonder when it's going to stop and how. We prefer to ignore it and just keep going. I have to say that it's interesting that it's something that is quite abstract, quite absurd and I think that's without trying to make something that's not full on, [that’s] very specific in a limited narrative. I always make something that has lots of open strands so you can follow multiple strands, or you can follow none because you're completely blocked by the fact that it's not naturalism and you feel alienated by it. But if you decide to get into its logic then you can follow all sorts of strands.

Are you interested in telling messages in films? You don't come across as someone who would like to teach something to viewers.

No, I'm not interested in messages.

Are there films that you do like that have messages?

I think the messages are carried through in a subterranean and subliminal way, and not through the cinematic post office way.

Filmmakers making films with messages are generally doing so for political reasons. Do you think there's a more subversive way?

I think there are all sorts of different ways; I don't think there's only one way. There are some extremely militant films that are like fists, they're like punches in the stomach, and they're amazing. I might want to make one of those films one day if I feel completely convinced about the impact that I want to have on a certain subject that I want to defend. I think there's different ways of making a difference and not only by having a message.

You said before that this film could have been about females. Would the situation play out differently, you think?

I don't know.

Would it be the same? Are women the same?

I made another film before called The Capsule. It's short—a companion piece, and again it's about control, and power, and dominance, and envy, and solitude. It's exactly the same themes dealt with: a group of girls growing up, and again so removed from reality, in a boarding school. As much as this is a boat, that is a boarding school, but removed from reality again.

Is that a class thing—are they able to remove themselves from reality or is the boarding school a similar situation?

Attenberg is also about those two girls coming of age. There's something very removed and ghostly about it, there are hardly any people. It's not really populated except for some scenes, which are almost like tableau vivant.

They do that because they have money to do that?

No, it's not a class thing. Chevalier is very much a class thing. Also the parallel universe is between the crew and the main passengers. That I did extremely consciously—that it was a movie about the ennui of the bourgeoisie. I was very interested in that. Also it's the middle class that is in huge existential crisis, and identity crisis.

Everywhere?

I think everywhere, yeah.

Why do you think it's everywhere?

Because I don't believe in such a globalized, homogenized world. In the twenty-first century I think it's impossible to have localities almost, at least in the Western world, so I should say everyone in the Western world, the developed world, in the first world. If we're talking about crisis things, [it’s] the crisis of the middle class and everything that results from that, so it's economical crisis, moral crisis, sexual crisis, and social crisis. Everything comes from this; it’s almost like the crisis of a species.

I am interested to know what kind of questions people have asked about the sexual side of things in this film.

Are you going to ask how it was being a female director directing men?

But hasn’t everyone else?

Everyone. I think that's the number two question after "how did you conceive this?"

Which question do you prefer to answer?

None of these. What do you think?

Which one?

Who am I, directing an all-male cast?

I didn't want to ask you anything about that because I'm certain people ask you things like that all the time, although a question like that does fit with the theme of the festival.

I mean, I don't think that our films fit in the pre-made concept of the festival. But it's maddening to me; these questions about being a woman shooting male characters, because it’s as if we are not supposed to do that, it's not really our destiny in life.

Is it the same when its the question, "how did you write these characters?" Is it the same question as directing them? Or when you say directing you mean writing as well?

Yeah. I mean the history of cinema is primarily of men, looking at women, creating stories about women with women. They never get these questions.

The next male director, I'll ask about that.

It just seems that male directors have carte blanche. They have full license, but as a woman you're expected to make films about what you know, which is other women: mothers, daughters, sisters; romantic comedies, and that's about it. And it's very difficult to actually prove that you can talk of everything else. It’s as if we don't read newspapers, we don't work, and we don't have brains.

I'm glad I didn't ask you that question then, although I did still kind of ask you. When you talk about the film, do you like talking about the themes in the film? Is it not an interesting thing for you to talk about because you want the audience to decide for themselves and think for themselves?

The characters, they were more archetypes, again, like middle class archetypes that Chevalier's co-writer, Efthymis Filippou and I came up with, but then the actors that I cast informed and shaped all of the characters, so I always cast very strong personalities.

What films do you think this idea connected to, as a movie itself, because I saw the John Cassevetes "Husbands" in it.

Yeah, that's a big reference and huge influence, [it’s] one of my favourite films.

Kind of Lord of the Flies meets Husbands.

I haven't seen Lord of the Flies actually. I really want to test myself, and experiment with the body moving as a genre. With every film I experiment with a different genre in completely my own way. So I watched a range between The Odd Couple, Deliverance, Husbands, and Friends.

Really, Friends the sitcom?

Yeah, I love Friends. Hey, what's not to like?

What's your next project?

I have a couple that I'm working on in parallel and we'll see what happens first. I have a residency, which is sponsored by Jaeger-LeCoutre, the watch company. They sponsor a filmmaking residency at the film society of the Lincoln Center—that happens between September and the middle of November. So I was given an apartment in Chinatown and I was the resident filmmaker at the New York Film Festival where Chevalier had its U.S. premiere. I'm scouting and writing a new script for film that's called White Knuckles. It's a neo-noir, caper comedy.

And it's set in the U.S.?

Part of it is in the U.S., part of it is in Europe, and part of it is in Hong Kong, ideally.

So it wouldn't really be your first English language film?

Well, my first feature was an English language film. It's called The Slow Business of Going.

Oh, I haven't seen that.

Yeah, it’s a film that I did as my thesis at the University of Texas in Austin. Very, very low budget, handmade kind of feature.

How long has it been since you've seen that film?

I saw it actually last year because it was played at Harvard—I'm at Harvard teaching so it was played at their film archive where they gave me a retrospective. I saw it actually after six or seven years and I was... It’s as if meeting a very old friend that I feel very tender towards. I'm not sure if I like that friend, but I feel Iots of empathy.

I wasn't aware of how strong the connection between you and the U.S. I knew that you went to University of Texas.

Yeah, I became a filmmaker in the U.S. and I spent twelve years there. So that's a big chunk of my adulthood.

Is that where you think a lot of these characters and concepts come from?

No, it's a Frankenstein-ian combination of all of my references, possessions, masters, between Beckett, Brecht, Bresson, Ballard, lots of Bs. Cassevetes, Romero. It's my artillery, and my altar. It's between altar and artillery for everything I do where I go back to these foundations.

When you say you go back, do you mean you physically go and look at the works?

I always get inspired by going back and re-reading Ballard, and I watch a Bresson film, or I go back and read Murphy by Beckett, or one of his short stories. So it's always about going back to my heroes and masters and personal saints.

What do you think about Beckett's film with Buster Keaton?

I love it and I adore it. And Buster Keaton, he's one of my heroes too. Another B. Howard Hawks as well—screwball, restless urges.

Does that comic side come out when you're on set?

It's all rehearsed, it's all choreographed in minute detail and on set we just execute.

I wanted to ask about the homoerotic connection between the men, and how it’s exploited so one eventually wins the Chevalier ring because of it.

Power! Not just men, everyone. It’s the practice of seduction. I’m glad you mentioned that because through that question I can say that I don't really see… This homoeroticism is something that I think all heterosexuals have. I really believe in the mixture in different levels of both feminine and masculine in all of us. It could be that he's falling in love with him and he wants to fuck him, but also it could mean he's falling in love with him as his ideal man because he would love to be a man like him. But it doesn't necessarily mean that he's sexually attracted to him.