CHAMELEON: Standing Out For The Wrong Reasons
Chilean film Chameleon depicts horrific sexual abuse of women, and doesn't do enough to redeem itself; it is nothing but exploitative.
A stark portrait of sexually motivated violence, Jorge Riquelme Serrano’s recent film, Chameleon, raises uncomfortable questions about responsibility and the entertainment industry.
The Taut and The Mundane
Artist Paulina, played by former Chilean Minister for Art and Culture Paulina Urrutia, is spending her final day with her partner Paula at their sea-view home. They awaken to tread the tightrope of their relationship, strained through the contrast between Paulina’s lofty ennui and Paula’s role as domestic servant. A knock at the door interrupts their breakfast which turns out to be their last in ways they did not anticipate.
Enter the insidious Gaston, played with horrific conviction, by Gaston Salgado. Posing as a messenger bearing a gift from the host of a party attended by all three the previous night, the visitor rolls into their lives like an immovable stone and before they know it, the exit is blocked.
Interspersed only with occasional traumatic flash backs to Gaston’s sexual encounter with an older, initially consenting man, that descends into protracted suffocation, the viewer begins to anticipate the darkening of the mood as Paulina and Paula’s fate is sealed. The flashbacks are vivid and grotesque, the camera unflinching as the face on the inside of the polythene bag becomes obscured with condensation, inflating then deflating with the victim’s last gasps.
It is clear straight away that there is some sort of malign chemistry between Paula, played brilliantly by Paula Zuniga, and the sinister Gaston. The wine starts to flow as they prepare a dish together and before long, Paula and Paulina are trading spiteful exchanges while Gaston fills Paula’s glass again and again.
There are minor twists and turns in this claustrophobic horror, but essentially we are trapped throughout the duration in the artist’s beautiful home, with both women going through the most horrific events imaginable.
The performances in the film are flawless. The intense sexually explicit nature of the rape scenes are so horribly convincing that I found myself truly nauseated. It’s a visceral film, to say the very least. The camera does not glamourise these despicable acts whatsoever, but from the moment Gaston revealed his monstrous intentions, I found myself wondering what was the point.
Is Serrano’s film some twisted version of cinema verité? Sure, such horrific events occur and often they have no rhyme or reason – that’s the macabre and perhaps, to some, fascinating contingency about the victims of serial killers: it could be you or I. But what of it? We know that.
Cinema can be minimalist. Cinema can be grand iMax 3D. It is the most dynamic of forms, it can be anything we want it to be. But above all, as an art form it must have an alchemical, transformative quality. Films with appalling subject matter dealing with all that is morally abhorrent are successful when they elevate their subject – when they touch the viewer, offer fresh insights into the human condition and illuminate even the darkest corners of what it means to be alive. Chameleon made me want to throw up.
Entertainment and Exploitation
This is a mysterious film in some respects, hard to track down on IMDb due to the abundance of other films with the same title and linked to two official websites that no longer exist. Dating back to the early part of 2016, it has garnered attention and acclaim at festivals, including a record 11 nominations at the 2017 Pedro Sienna Chilean film awards, where it won Best Director, Best Female Lead (Paulina Urrutia) and Best Original Music (Carlos Cabezas). I cannot think of a less apposite moment in recent history to release a film about unmitigated sexualised violence, primarily towards women.
This is not a documentary. This is, supposedly, an evening’s entertainment. What are we to do – laugh? It is not real. It is too real, too near the bone. The director, the writer is male. The perpetrator is male, the victims are women (and a peripheral man whose story we know nothing of other than its grisly end). We know this story too well.
Who is the audience? If it is so obvious with whom our empathy lies as viewers than why re-tell this tale yet again without further illumination, without reflecting on the very real problem of sexual violence in society? Without contributing to the debate or offering any real treatment of such issues, Chameleon presents itself as a wholly exploitative movie.
A Lack of Light in the Darkness?
In the days that have elapsed since seeing this film, I have tried to understand where it is going, tried to mine the angles, look for further clues. The trail is cold. Fiction is often a tool that enables us to look into the darker recesses of the human condition and illuminate them, frequently through a presentation of the unpalatable truths we don’t want to face in real life. Vicariously, it puts the viewer into high risk situations and when done with a certain deftness, even without any obvious moral hectoring, we can learn, we can grow, we can understand a little more without having to directly experience it ourselves.
Laberinto describes itself as a ‘collective of filmmakers and artists dedicated to creating films with a social perspective born from the firm belief that art can contribute to building a better society.’ Given this, it is possible that the intentions behind this film are much more noble than they are given credit for here. However, in the absence of further context, taken cold as a viewer, just as anyone who might stumble upon this film, I fail to see how Chameleon contributes to raising social awareness about anything.
Does it try to present the viewer with a raw presentation of graphic sexual violence as a challenge to our culturally institutionalised expectations of the role of women as often glamorous victims in cinematic narratives? Historically, such appalling treatment is often far less consequential than it should be and glossed over as titilating entertainment. Here however, we are left with the full horror of the events. No redemption, no parallel plot lines laced with resolve or optimism.
If the latter is true, then perhaps the problem is the fact that as cinema, as entertainment, it cannot excuse itself entirely from that which it seeks to critique. On that score, it blends in rather too well as the title suggests. Yet neither the insinuation of the predatory Gaston into the lives of Paula and Paulina, nor the set-up in general ring true as a convincing canvas upon which to articulate such relevant and urgent ideas.
In Chameleon I cannot find any satisfactory answers as to whom the viewer is invited to be or the meaning or consequences of the events other than those that are glaringly obvious. After the headlines of the last few weeks, one has to ask, would Chameleon still get made today?
If you are a woman and working in this industry or if you have also seen the film, who do you think this film is for and does this equation of sexual violence and entertainment perpetuate exploitation of women in general?
Chameleon is released into the wild via Laberintino Films in the UK in November 2017. It is also available to stream on Amazon.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.