A problematic, erotically charged new film about the French resistance (titled A Little Death… geddit?) has attracted the attention of the studio bosses. The producer, Cameron O’Neill (Steve Coogan), himself somewhat compromised by outdated attitudes, is told to sort it out. He drafts in a well-respected feminist filmmaker, “Bobby” Sohrabi (Sarah Solemani), who helps him try to persuade the vile director (Djilali Rez) to reshoot the offending material. During their lively discussion, said director – who has a French accent as obscene as his views of him on women – drops dead.
Then the fun starts. Liberated from the deceased monster – a cold-eyed, vaguely Epsteinesque figure – Cameron and Bobby set about navigating a post-#MeToo Hollywood, trying to gauge what is and isn’t allowed on screen; what words are and are not taboo; under what circumstances are an older man in a position of power and authority allowed to date a younger subordinate female…
Thus we find Bobby berating the 50-something Cameron for his relationship with his personal assistant, who is half his age. She’s so young, she dumped him on WhatsApp, as Coogan’s mildly conflicted studio executive explains, with an almost Boris Johnson-like air of wry satisfaction. He claims to have loved her, so what’s the problem? Bobby makes her point from her by asking him when her birthday from her is (“Erm, October something?”) And where she’s from (“… er, begins with ‘O’. Oklahoma… Oregon”). Cameron sarcastically suggests she can approve her next prospective partner, and she looks very much like she’d enjoy doing that.
We also learn that Cameron has slept with the film’s female lead, a French resistance “honey pot” agent, played by Sienna Miller. She conveys the sour energy of someone who finds the whole ethos of her profession demeaning her, while simultaneously rebelling against it. She may have gone to bed with Cameron, but their past de ella, presumably brief, intimacy also means that she can chuck her spiked panties at him and tell him to pay her more.
It’s raucous, difficult stuff, trying to find a route through this new ethical landscape. Solemani, Coogan and Miller – nicely supported by Wanda Sykes, Paul Rudd and Lolly Adefope – all do an excellent job of crashing into the contemporary obstacles that make the creative process trickier. Take a line such as “grab my hair and f*** me!”, supposedly uttered in around 1943 by a beautiful French resistance fighter masquerading as a sex worker. Is it still OK? Should the emphasis in the scene be on the pleasure of the Nazi officer (soon to meet his little and bigger death of him), thus objectifying the woman? Or should it be on the woman herself, who is the more central character? And if it’s on the woman, where should the camera’s gaze fall? And, depending on which, how explicit would be pleading be? The compulsory intervention of an intimacy adviser on set slows production down by turning into an ethics seminar, as does a glabrous “woke” actor trying to make himself at ease with playing the sadistic Nazi (given that the Third Reich preferred men not to depilate their bodyhair).
The problem with Chivalry isn’t the topical themes, the dry, witty writing or the wonderfully world-weary pairing of Coogan and Solemani. Both have rather cynical, hard-bitten, direct sorts of personalities, despite their divergent outlooks and origins. That’s all most intriguing and highly engaging. It’s just the sheer audacious scale of the comedy drama’s near-pornographic presentation and profane language that threatens to overwhelm.
There’s one especially trenchant discussion of whether the “C-word” can be legitimately used to describe female genitalia, or parts thereof, or a human being. The dialogue in Chivalry is basically an amalgam of barrack-room swearing, porn-movie set directions and the sort of intimate technical terms you might encounter during a gynecological case conference. I don’t know whether, in the age of Naked Attraction, Babestation and Nadine Dorries, there are or should be any boundaries around what is seen and heard on TV. But I think Chivalry you have helped me find my own boundaries as a viewer. Enough, already.