Movies that push the boundaries and look to horrify viewers are hardly something new. You only have to look back at A Clockwork Orange or Salo or any number of controversial films over the years to see that we’ve been tested every step of the way by Hollywood output and foreign productions. Directors and writers have been looking to see what they can get away with and what can truly be considered art. It’s not always the horror genre of course, with releases like Baise-moi and Straw Dogs focusing more on the crime and thriller angle, but the core ideas are often the same. These stories often feature elements of home invasion and newly released psychological thriller Chameleon is no different.
The real question behind Chameleon and anything similar is whether the approach is justified. Is the behaviour of the antagonists for the greater good of the storytelling or is it simply explicit and uncomfortable for no reason at all? I’m very rarely squeamish myself and while I find no enjoyment in such scenes, the ends can often justify the means in such scripts. You could argue that it’s not a subject that should be touched on for entertainment’s sake, but the flip side is that we shouldn’t be ignoring that these things happen either. What I really struggled with in Chameleon is finding the meaning and purpose behind the story beyond the lazy efforts to shock the audience.
Jorge Riquelme Serrano’s debut is as simplistic and non-Hollywood as they come. Chameleon has no frills, no efforts to edit or puff up the content, and simply chooses to focus on the characters, their dialogue and behaviour. It’s not a bad approach to telling a story, especially one that is so highly dependent on examining relationships, and perhaps it’s that lack of filmic touch that really makes it uncomfortable. The real problem comes from using the tale to attempt to criticise or study society or class – something that many of the viewers worldwide simply won’t know or understand about Chile. Should we have to have background knowledge to truly understand? Or would it be better if it worked on a number of levels to appeal to both those in the know and more foreign viewers? I suppose that’s something a filmmaker needs to decide when they’re creating their masterpiece but it can result in very different experiences depending on where you’re coming from.
Chameleon follows a lesbian couple Paulina (Paulina Urrutia) and Paula (Paula Zuniga), both as confusing and challenging as they come, and they clearly have a very complicated relationship. Throw a young man Gaston (Gaston Salgado) into the mix, who seems to be sticking around like a bad smell after a party, and suddenly their world is turned upside down. Gaston is not a nice man. Not one bit. He tries with the small talk and whatever else but then the tide turns and suddenly these women are at his mercy. What seems like an innocent and almost boring scenario changes mood completely and you nearly wish it’d go back to the meandering and strange dialogue. The couple are struggling with their relationship and potential future and Gaston takes advantage of their weakness to horrific effect.
Gaston – sadly not the Beauty and the Beast villain – is a very odd fellow. He’s not even scary as such, just utterly strange and we don’t even really understand what he is or what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. Undoubtedly Serrano’s method is to make everything as vague and futile as possible but it does leave you with numerous questions. Life’s like that sometimes though, especially in situations of rape and male dominance when many are left with those ‘why me?’ questions etc. Unfortunately that lack of clear motivation or background behind any of the characters doesn’t necessarily play well for audience understanding or empathy or anything really. Credit to those involved that they don’t sensationalise the acts themselves but they potentially went too far the other way and didn’t offer enough of a base development for us to even care.
So for me, without that background knowledge pre-viewing, Chameleon comes across as unfortunately shallow and ultimately disappointing, especially held up against more effective films of the past. Is it thought provoking? Occasionally but not necessarily in the way that Serrano would hope for. Many of us will just miss the point completely and it could easily feel quite gratuitous to some. While I appreciate a minimalistic style and an effort to break down the human psyche, Chameleon never really works well enough on any level to be considered one of the best in a long line of dark sadistic films. There’s just that overwhelming feeling of having been there and done that many times before with nothing new on offer.
Chameleon is available now on VOD and on DVD on 18th December.
Dir: Jorge Riquelme Serrano
Starring: Alejandro Goic, Gastón Salgado, Paulina Urrutia, Paula Zúñiga
Run time: 82 mins