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Film Review: ‘Chameleon’

Variety logo Variety 6/17/2017 Dennis Harvey

Enigmatic “Chameleon” is a minimalist psychological thriller in which a seemingly benign visitor to a well-off lesbian couple’s home turns out to have very sinister intentions. Stingy on conventional thrills, and pretty murky in terms of psychology as well, Jorge Riquelme Serrano’s debut feature is a precisely engineered chamber piece that will sharply divide audiences with both its coolly distanced style and incendiary yet somewhat baffling content.

While some may admire its Haneke-like dispassion amid increasingly alarming events, others may find the element of class-warfare critique under-articulated, or experience the targeting of gay characters here as an expression of, rather than a commentary on, homophobia. Whatever their verdict, festivalgoers will have plenty to debate afterward. Mainstream viewers are likely to be few for an item that so deliberately eschews the standard satisfactions of a commercial suspense narrative.

After a brief, unpinnably weird prologue in which a young man dances with a seemingly drugged-up older one, we meet Paulina (Paulina Urrutia) and Paula (Paula Zuniga) as they awaken in their impressive ocean-view Santo Domingo abode. Evidently there was a party the night before, from which the more housewife-y, if hungover, Paula begins to clean up debris. Paulina isn’t much help — and she expects to be served breakfast as well. Their somewhat lopsided, semi-stereotypical femme/butch dynamic reveals itself in small ways at first, though we glean that Paulina’s imminent solo work trip to London might signal a major rift in an already problematic relationship.

Nonetheless, they’re having a quiet morning — which is interrupted by the arrival of Gaston (Gaston Salgado), who announces himself as “Franco’s friend” from the prior evening, the handsome young man their middle-aged gay friend brought along as a date, though whether he was a real friend or paid escort is anyone’s guess. He talks his way in plausibly enough, bearing an apology for bad behavior from Franco (while also wearing the latter’s shirt).

The women entertain him politely, while privately wondering exactly why he shows no sign of leaving. Paula gets a little drunk (as apparently is her wont), and they let him gently push some marital tensions into the open. It’s at the still-broad-daylight point midway through “Chameleon,” when Paula must be put to bed — having gotten blotto on the possibly tampered wine Gaston brought — that this unexpected guest’s real agenda begins to emerge.

Serrano doesn’t take the home invasion scenario as far into horror terrain as Haneke did in “Funny Games,” nor does he treat it quite so clearly as a commentary on film violence itself. But the Chilean writer-helmer similarly thrusts “normal” people against a nemesis whose motivations are so ambiguous as to render him almost an abstract. And there’s a similar refusal to make sadistic mayhem graphic, exciting or even very scary in any typical pulp-fiction way.

Unhappy Paula and caustic Paulina are not particularly sympathetic figures; nor are the brief flashback glimpses we get of Franco (Alejandro Goic) very flattering. The performers are very good, but it’s unclear just how we’re meant to take the fact that these gay victims are at once economically privileged and somewhat dislikable. Do they thus deserve their fates? While not exactly a “chameleon,” Salgado does manage a simultaneously creepy and mysterious arc from apparently guileless charm to convincing malevolence, with just enough undertow of pathos to make us wonder what personal-history wrongs “Gaston”— if that’s even his name — might be avenging. (We do glean he’s much humbler in employment status and class background than he initially suggests.)

Chile has one of the worst rates of economic inequality among developed nations (the U.S. isn’t far behind), and for home audiences the film may play as a blunt allegorical address of that social issue. But for outside viewers, its primary discomfort may lie in puzzling out the full intent behind a movie that centers on a youthful, attractive lower-class man wreaking methodical destruction on some rich, older, not-so-attractive gays. We’re not exactly encouraged to root for Gaston. Yet it’s easy to imagine unsophisticated or illiberal spectators drawing the simplistic conclusion that he’s flipped decadent social norms to prey on the “predators.”

Of course, those viewers might be too bored to get that far, particularly as “Chameleon” delivers its limited quantities of violence, sex and suspense with consummate anti-sensationalist detachment. Those willing to go along with the experiment will not be bored, though they may emerge variably enthralled, frustrated and/or provoked.

Basically shot in a single location, the film benefits from Cristian Petit-Laurent’s crisp widescreen photography, with other tech/design contributions (including Carlos Cabezas’ very sparingly deployed score) likewise tasteful and restrained.

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