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film : interview

Athina Rachel Tsangari

by Giovanni Marchini Camia

"It's not really subversion, it's catching something before it becomes what we're accustomed to."

Still from Chevalier, 2016. All images courtesy of Strand Releasing.

The 2010 release of Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari's second feature, marked the high point of the Greek Weird Wave set off the previous year by Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth. With Tsangari producing Dogtooth and Lanthimos producing as well as acting in Attenberg, the pair became the wave's de facto poster children—even if, as is the case with most such categorizations, the filmmakers themselves vehemently opposed the idea of a movement. Lanthimos went on to direct increasingly large-scale films with relative regularity—his latest, The Lobster, features international stars like Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Rachel Weisz—whereas Tsangari disappeared from the spotlight to some degree. Apart from her short film The Capsule, which made the festival rounds in 2012, she mostly collaborated on others' projects, for example co-producing Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, where she also appeared in a minor acting role.
It was a very welcome surprise when last year's Locarno Film Festival announced that Tsangari's Chevalier would screen in the main competition. Very little information was revealed prior to the premiere and the press kit only consisted of a rulebook for "a fantastic strategic game for two or more male players," containing cryptic guidelines like: "Excessive use of adverbs, -5 points. Stiff hard-on, +2 points. Overblinking, -40 points." As it transpired, these pertained to the game invented and played by Chevalier's protagonists, six wealthy men vacationing on a yacht out at sea. The boat functions as a huis clos within which the men engage in a series of absurd contests, exposing and exploiting each other's insecurities and vulnerabilities as they try to ascertain who amongst them is "The Best At Everything In General."
As a film that revolves around games, Chevalier also plays with its audience. This is most obvious on the level of narrative and character. The film repeatedly pretends to follow familiar trajectories, but then deliberately rejects the dynamics customary to such scenarios (those hoping for an escalation à la Roman Polanski's Carnage will be disappointed). Fittingly, when I met Tsangari in Locarno right after the premiere of Chevalier, she was wearing a white power suit and sunglasses so dark they completely concealed her eyes, making it impossible to read her small, enigmatic smile—she had all the look of a formidable adversary.

Giovanni Marchini Camia You've said that Attenberg was born from the idea of a daughter asking her father whether he's ever thought about her naked. Did Chevalier also have a similarly specific starting point?

Athina Rachel Tsangari Yes, the starting point was the image of men coming out of the sea, like prehistoric creatures coming out into this very barren landscape. I usually construct a film around two or three images. I have these three images and with the script I fill in the blanks between them.

Another important image was the peeling off of their wet suits, like second skins. I liked the idea of them peeling each other's skin off, an acquired artificial skin in a way, which is what they're doing throughout the movie. And another image was that of two men exchanging blood, which is something very violent and very moving at the same time.

GMC You were the sole scriptwriter on Attenberg. Why did you choose to co-write the script to Chevalier with Efthymis Filippou?

ART I knew that I wanted to work with an all-male cast. I wasn't interested in making a critique or a movie about masculinity, but since I was going to work with men, it was important.
It was also fun for me to co-write with someone. It was almost like playing a game since we weren't writing a script with a three-act structure, or from beginning to end. We just kept throwing ideas back and forth. The characters weren't there in the beginning, they started evolving out of our conversations about the typology of character. Each one of them is a bit of an archetype.

GMC Was it a long scriptwriting process?

ART It took us about six months, on and off. It wasn't continuous. We'd meet once a week to discuss, then Efthymis would write up scenes and we'd review them. In the end we had a lot, maybe three times more than what we needed. Then, when I started rehearsing with the actors, which took about a month and a half, each one of them brought their own ideas. The chemical reaction between them also created a lot of scenes that didn't exist in the script.

GMC So a lot of what we see in the finished film is improvised?

ART I always want to have a script, I don't believe in improvisation. Lots of people think that because I work a lot with actors, it's improvised on the set. But actually everything is extremely precise. I would rehearse with the cinematographer [Christos Karamanis], discussing the geometry of the shot. For example, it's very important to me how a face occupies the frame. It was my first dialogue-heavy film, and it was a challenge cinematographically to figure out how to position a talking human face in the frame.

GMC Shooting virtually the entire film on the boat must have been very challenging as well. 

ART It was very tight, like working in a prison. There were rules that we had to obey. It was a very fragile balance, and with any situation it could explode if people were too irritated. There was a lot of nausea because of the high sea, and it was winter. I chose to shoot in the winter so it would have this kind of ominous grey light, and also the opposite of the cliché of what Greece is like.

But it was also great. We're all friends in the crew and keep working together, so we've figured out a way to do it without too much talking. All the talking and negotiating was in front of the camera. Behind the camera, it was almost a silent choreography, accommodating the actors.

And the cinematographer did an amazing job. I had chosen the boat because of the white reflective walls, as sometimes I wanted to portray it like a spaceship, but it was a nightmare for him to light. Any movement by those standing behind the camera and you'd see it on the walls.

GMC I'd like to get back to what you said about defying the cliché of a sunny Greece. Often when I speak to directors, they say they don't care or think about audience expectations while shooting. Is that true for you as well?

ART I have a certain audience in mind. For every film I think I have an intended audience. It's people I know, and as I'm writing or editing I try to figure out what this particular person would think, how they would react. It's nice to have a real or imaginary receiver. It helps me, and I really care about what the audience feels.

But audience is such an unknown factor. There's no the audience, there's millions of different audiences. Each one of us is an audience. I don't set out to make popular movies that will appeal to huge audiences. I wouldn't mind, of course, but when you have to talk to many people and make them understand a common thing, you tend to make lots of concessions, and I don't want to do that right now.

GMC The reason I ask is because I felt, in many instances, that the film was purposely flouting viewer expectations—in terms of the narrative, but also on a formal level, considering how different Chevalier is from Attenberg.

ART The mise en scène for Chevalier, in a way, was the opposite of that in Attenberg. At the same time, there were rules I made in regard to how the narrative would develop. Each scene would set up expectations and then go in another direction, so I guess that's a structure.

So, to a certain extent, yes, I was interested in exploring a genre—the buddy movie—and play with that in my own way. I work very intuitively, so every time something would end up becoming funny "ha ha," I would cringe, it just didn't seem right. I'm interested in the way hot and cold, tender and cynical combine. The characters fight with each other, and sometimes they come into a very momentary harmony, and then they fall apart. I'm really interested in these binary relationships between opposite forces in the psychology, and the biology, and the geography of the mise en scène itself.

GMC The boat did feel like a "hell is other people" scenario.

ART It would have been very easy as a so-called "woman filmmaker" to make a movie about men. It was very risky to not make fun of men, or make judgments, or make a movie about the other gender from a woman's point of view. It was a huge struggle while writing, rehearsing, and editing to find the balance of this: "hell is other people", but at the same time other people are… heaven.

I love humans and want to have a tender gaze toward them, to love them in the end. I was loving them throughout, and every time it would go into easy comedy, or easy parody, or easy satire, I would hold it back. Maybe that's what you were talking about. It's not really subversion, it's catching something before it becomes what we're accustomed to, which is laughing at certain behaviors.

Panos Koronis in Chevalier, 2016.

GMC Can you elaborate on what you said about wanting to play with the buddy film genre?

ART You know, it's a genre, for example bromance movies. Have you ever seen The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon? That's a great one. Movies with men who are in crisis and they're friends, and they try to help each other, and they try to get girls. They're about male friendship, so this was a buddy movie without the buddies. They start out not being buddies, and at the end, they're still not buddies.

GMC Yet they don't end up antagonistic, either.

ART They are, deeply, underneath. But you know, the middle class can deal with it better than the working class. The crew erupts into a full fistfight. It's impossible to contain that antagonism. The middle class somehow resolves it in a more civil way. They all depart from the boat. It's been a futile game, and they all just go back to their miserable petit bourgeois lives.

GMC In this regard, why was it important for the characters to be men?

ART It's just a very natural impulse that came to me. I didn't set out to make a movie about men, but about human nature. To me it was much more clear to work with characters of the same gender, so that then the gender issue wouldn't confuse the clarity of the competition.

GMC As in, gender disparities wouldn't play a role?

ART Yes. Before this I had made The Capsule, which had an all-female cast, so I guess I was interested to see what that gender homogeneity would produce, what kind of aberrations, conflicts, colors—anarchy and harmony. I'm interested in opposites coming together and then splitting apart.

GMC During the blood oath ceremony, one of the characters invokes a secret society from 1821 [Filiki Eteira, aka Society of Friends]. What is he referring to? 

ART That was a secret society of wealthy Greeks who were living abroad in the Ottoman Empire, in different countries. They formed this secret society that then financed and led the revolt against the Ottomans. It was the beginning of the revolution against the Ottomans and the establishment of the first free Greek state. They had an initiation process, and everyone who joined had to be made a blood brother.

Who knows if it actually existed, but it's something we are taught about growing up. As a story or myth about our national heroes, we thought it was pertinent to our discussion about the nation. In our case, no one saves anyone, no one is the hero, so 200 years later, it's the end of heroes. And the futility of victory—the complete, utter futility.

GMC Of victory in itself?

ART Yes. We just had the referendum [the July 2015 referendum on whether Greece should accept the austerity measures proposed by its creditors] and the nation voted no, but then it was yes anyway. Who won, who lost? In the end, you don't know. It's a pseudo-question answered with a pseudo-question.

GMC This sentiment reflects the current zeitgeist in Greece?

ART It's not only a direct representation or comment on that. I think this boat and these men could be anywhere, at any time. We play Chevalier every day. You and I are playing Chevalier right now.


Chevalier is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center in New York. It screens in select US cities through the summer.

Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic, and a founding editor of Fireflies.

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