DVD The Chameleon
“Based on a true story” is a problematic phrase with which to prefix a film. It allows mediocre films to achieve undeserved levels of admiration because audiences are won over by the extraordinary or heart wrenching nature of events that have supposedly actually happened. It is believed that the story speaks for itself, which is both lazy and misleading. Less significance is placed on whether the film is engaging, moving, or compelling, and many films boasting this locution are hardly ever telling a true story. Merely fragments of truth come in between elaborate doses of artistic creation. The Chameleon, the first English language film by Jean-Paul Salome (Female Agents, Arsene Lupin, Belphegor), is “based on a true story”. That does not mean the story speaks for itself.
The figure leading this story is Nicholas Mark Randall (Marc-Andre Grondin). Found lying and shivering on a French road, he claims to be the missing child of a Louisiana family who mysteriously disappeared four years ago. His remarkable story is that he was taken at the age of 13 by a European child prostitution ring, subjected to both physical and sexual abuse and forced to speak French (resulting in an accent). Nicholas has been so traumatised by his experience that he has suffered from amnesia. When his sister Kathy (Emilie de Ravin) arrives in France and identifies him, it seems that there is a happy ending for this family after all.
Convinced? Considering the title, there is reason to be suspicious of the return of the prodigal son. Is he really Nicholas? When he returns to Louisiana, Kathy, along with her husband Brian (Brian Geraghty), do not hesitate to welcome him with open arms. His hunched, dead-eyed mother, Kimberly (Ellen Barkin), reacts differently; barely looking at Nicholas and refusing to touch him. Before his disappearance, Nicholas’s recalcitrant and louche behaviour caused great distress to his mother and tension with his violent, drug-addled half-brother, Brendan (Nick Stahl).
Family life is difficult for this beer-swilling, chain-smoking group of people – the pain has turned to a dull, relentless ache – at the best of times, so ‘Nicholas’ struggles to adjust to his life in Baton Rouge. With the suspicions of Kimberly, Brendan and FBI Agent Jennifer Johnson (Famke Janssen) – who desperately seeks the truth behind Nicholas’s return – the happy ending unravels immediately. It is not just Nicholas being investigated; the family’s troubled past is being brought to the surface…
It barely comes as a surprise in The Chameleon that Grondin’s Nicholas turns out not to be the real missing child. This is not conclusively revealed until near the end of the film, but there is never a single moment in the film when we fully believe his tale. Although his identity would have been simply proven by a blood test, everyone refuses to let one happen. Why? The true story on which this film is based follows one of the colourful incidents of serial imposter Frederic Bourdin – renamed to Frederic Fortin in the film – who gained the moniker “Le Cameleon”. In his twenties, he took the identity of teenager Nicholas Barclay (renamed to Nicholas Mark Randall in the film) who went missing from his hometown in Texas (changed to Louisiana in the film) in the 1990s (changed to present day in the film). It is clear to see already a certain movement away from the true series of events. The screenplay by Natalie Carter is based on the authorised biography The Chameleon by Christophe D’Antonio, and seeing as the material of this book came primarily from Bourdin, a man who spent most of his life compulsively lying, it is difficult to invest in this story.
The Chameleon also suffers from the aforementioned problem with films based on true stories: the audience is expected to be so amazed by the tale of a man who convinced a family that he was their missing son that the actual drama is crushingly lacklustre. It has none of the focus on the fracturing mind of a central character of The Talented Mister Ripley; it is played too straight to have any of the comedy of Catch Me If You Can or The Informant; and it has none of the resonance of Gone Baby Gone. Moving to the caliginous, sodden setting of the bayou is appropriate, as the endless stretches of soggy marshes emphasise how this family are lost in a place where secrets are easily hidden. This is, unfortunately, the best part of this drama.
It is not badly made, just emotionless. As the eponymous chameleon, Frederic starts to learn about the life of this family, and he adapts his behaviour to what he believes Nicholas was like. Grondin, who was impressive in the 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y., has very little to do. If the narrative of the film was solely told from Frederic’s point of view, there would have been a much stronger investment for the audience. His motives behind his fraud and his state of mind could have been developed. Instead, it is more of an ensemble piece, so no character is developed fully and it plays out like a procedural.
The Chameleon is a competently constructed and executed character piece which fails to either impress or even disappoint.
The introduction of Famke Janssen’s tenacious Jennifer is equally as perfunctory. Janssen is a mesmerising talent woefully wasted in this thankless and superfluous role. Her inevitable back-story, and, ergo, her reason for working so hard to uncover Frederic’s deception, is disappointingly familiar. Her desire for the truth is even undermined as the film splinters into several uncontrolled tangents, primarily revolving around Kimberly and Brendan.
The sneering, intimidating bully Brendan treats Frederic with utter disdain. He knows from the start that he is not who he claims to be but does nothing. Why? Who cares? It becomes more and more evident that there is information concerning the real Nicholas’ disappearance which has not seen the light of day, and Kimberly is in on it, too.
Stahl and Barkin give the best performances in the film, particularly the latter, but in a drama that is so unremarkable and dilatory, it is difficult to be impressed. When the mercurial Barkin casually shoots heroin while Frederic observes, and the two oddly start to build a relationship, it offers an opportunity for the film to return focus to Frederic and his motives behind his bizarre life. This opportunity, like the rest of the film, is wasted.
Kathy initially protects Nicholas from the prying of the FBI and works the hardest to assimilate him back into the family. Halfway through the film, however, she suddenly changes to someone who is tired of Nicholas. He even overhears her say that she should never have gone to France to collect him. The shift is so sudden that the only logical conclusion is that there was a mistake in the editing and an entire expositional scene was omitted. She is convinced by Jennifer to (finally) allow a DNA test to prove whether he is Nicholas or not, but then changes her mind again so quickly that the audience is in danger of getting whiplash.
Torpid, fusty and sometimes soporific, The Chameleon is a competently constructed and executed character piece which fails to either impress or even disappoint. The film starts, continues, then finishes without much response. The mind starts to wander and fixate on minor plot flaws: when preparing his impersonation, Frederic has the letter “N” tattooed on his hand as he reads on a file that is one of Nicholas’s distinguishing features. The resulting tattoo is overly elaborate, with only a very small likelihood that it was the same as Nicholas’. It is a minor niggle, but a bothersome one. In its emotion-free conclusion, we see Frederic’s mendacity as a sentimental appeal for love. Who cares?
Frederic was an inexplicably successful imposter, so it seems fitting that The Chameleon attempts to impersonate a moving, biographical drama. With more questions than answers in its unsatisfactory and purposely equivocating conclusion, it is an unmemorable affair. It is peculiar in telling intriguing, supposedly real events, that much of the film is rather derivative. There could have been poignancy in its denouement, as we see a family unable to heal the wounds of their past, but there is not enough to care about before the ending. The prefix “based on a true story” is not enough: just telling an extraordinary story does not make the telling extraordinary.
Recent World Cinema Reviews
Martha. The debut feature from hotly tipped
Mexican director Marcelino Islas Hernández…
Drunken Master. Drunken Master was screened as part of Derby QUADR…
What Richard Did. Lenny Abrahamson’s latest effort is a…
Three Colours Blue. Three Colours Blue is the first film in…
The Saragossa Manuscript. Considered by many to be Wojciech…
Leave a Comment
No comments yet