CHAMELEON: Brutality Meets Banality
Heavily reminiscent of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, Chameleon boasts three great performances - but still leaves a sour aftertaste.
Chameleon, the debut feature film from Chilean writer-director Jorge Riquelme Serrano, feels designed to be divisive. That, in the first place, is enough reason to be wary; after all, a film’s story should be compelling enough to not rely on shock value in order to keep audience members engaged. It’s true that if you ask most storytellers, they will probably tell you that it’s better to elicit a fiery negative reaction than no reaction at all, to tell a story that upsets people as opposed to one they forget as soon as the closing credits roll.
And to be fair, Chameleon has most definitely lingered with me. But that’s only because I remain disgusted by the film’s pervasive use of violence against women, perpetrated by a man, in order to deliver a vague statement about the lengths people will go for material happiness.
An Unwelcome Guest
Paulina (Paulina Urrutia, who previously served as Chile’s Minister for Culture and the Arts) wakes up in her gorgeous beach house the morning after a wild coming-going party that was held in her honor; she’s heading off to London for work, leaving her lover, Paula (Paula Zúñiga) behind. Paulina treats Paula almost more like a housekeeper than a partner, laying in bed late while Paula cleans up after the party and demanding that Paula make her breakfast.
It’s clear that Paulina is the breadwinner of the household, and that she doesn’t let Paula forget it. What was supposed to be a peaceful last day alone together before Paulina’s departure is interrupted by the arrival of Gastón (Gastón Salgado), a handsome young man who claims to have been at the party last night as the date of their friend Franco. Paulina and Paula are reluctant to admit him, but as he comes bearing glasses and a bottle of wine, they decide it would be impolite to turn him away.
What begins as a lazy day over too many glasses of wine goes awry when Paula overdoes it and begins drunkenly waving all of her and Paulina’s dirty laundry (including her total lack of sexual satisfaction) in Gastón’s face. Paulina and Gastón put Paula to bed, but from there, things only get darker – and by darker, we’re talking pitch black. Gastón begins terrorizing the women, drugging Paulina by forcing her to swallow pill after pill and then dragging her into the bedroom to helplessly watch him rape the unconscious Paula.
The glazed expression on Paulina’s face as she merely sits like a piece of furniture while Gastón assaults Paula is one of the most upsetting scenes I have seen in a movie all year. Once Paula wakes up, Paulina is nowhere to be found, and Gastón’s creepy games continue. Through flashbacks, we learn that his so-called relationship with Franco was similarly frightening – and met a similarly disturbing end. Why is Gastón targeting these people? It appears to have something to do with their substantial privilege, something that he feels they deserve to be punished for.
Shot in a bare-bones, brutally realistic way that echoes Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Chameleon tries to make a statement about the lengths people will go in order to make their dream lives come true, even if the happiness delivered by the dream ends up being barely more than skin-deep. Paula acknowledges that she doesn’t enjoy sex with Paulina, and shies away from identifying as a lesbian; it becomes apparent that the main reason she stays in such an unsatisfying and somewhat emotionally abusive relationship is to live in Paulina’s big, beautiful house by the sea, the kind of house she dreamed of living in as a little girl but never imagined she could afford to make her own.
While Paulina is clearly at home amongst the upper-crust of society, Paula has more in common with Gastón – both are willing to live some form of lie in order to get a taste of the good life. Both are willing to change themselves, like chameleons, at the drop of a hat in order to get what they want. In Paula’s case, that means engaging in a sexual relationship with another woman; in Gastón’s case, it is doing the same with a man – and then killing him. Gastón enjoys the trappings of upper-class life as he roams around Paula and Paulina’s home (and gets his fingerprints and DNA on literally everything), but he also seems dead set on punishing those privileged enough to enjoy such lives, whether they have earned it through their work like Paulina or through their social climbing, like Paula.
Yet the brutal violence Gastón delivers to Paula and Paulina, and the dispassionate gaze with which the camera films it, doesn’t feel like the right way to deliver a message of class struggle. Rather, it’s a distraction. One cannot find any fault with the three lead actors’ performances, which are solid across the board despite the barely sketched-out characters they portray. Salgado, in particular, stands out, as his seamless transition from polite guest to terrifying intruder makes Gastón feel like an all-too-realistic monster straight out of any woman’s nightmares.
Yet none of them are interesting enough for the audience to be truly invested in them, even as the film spirals downward into violence. Any truly enlightening critique of the upper-class and those who betray themselves in order to be part of it gets lost amidst the drugging, the beating and the rape. In the end, what did Gastón accomplish with his violent spree?
And, more importantly, what did Serrano accomplish by making this film? Why did a male writer-director feel compelled to show two women – two LGBTQ women, at that – be subjected to all kinds of horrific punishment at the hands of a man? Why do so many male writer-directors have this compulsion? To me, that is the real issue worth examining here.
Rather than make a statement about class warfare or people living their lives as imposters, Chameleon instead makes a powerful statement as to why we need more women making films about women. As a woman, I am sick of seeing us subjected to all kinds of torture onscreen for the sake of storytelling. I am tired of violence against women being used by men as a mere plot device.
Too many male filmmakers use the daily struggle of women to survive in a world that constantly devalues them as an easy way to elicit an emotional response from an audience; like the society they purport to critique, their films view women only as objects to be looked at, kicked around, taken advantage of, screwed. Women deserve to have our stories told by those who seek to empathize, not exploit.
What do you think? Does Chameleon sound intriguing or exploitative? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Chameleon is available to stream on Amazon. You can find more international release dates here.
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