Film Review – THE CHAMELEON
There’s no doubt that Hollywood is in the doldrums, with a scarcity of good plots, or profound messages combined with good screenplays. Good actors are forced to make a living in lightweight action films, absurd science fiction, or mind-numbing comedies in which crudity is passed off as humour. Some directors are still trying to rise above populist mediocrity: I can recommend Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, and this Franco-American production, The Chameleon.
Coincidentally, what these films have in common is that they are based on real-life experiences, in which the basis of the plot is seemingly improbable realities. Perhaps what makes these films superior is not so much the narrative thread but the characterisation of the protagonists: the qualities of endurance, fortitude, and integrity, in the face of either danger or suffering. These we must assume to be true.
The Chameleon will probably excite strong feelings of like or dislike. All the three films I have mentioned have a dark quality but are ultimately uplifting about the human spirit. The depressing nature of this film is rooted in the working class milieu of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an area which reflects the worst of American economic decline. As the central character, Frederic Fortin (Grondin) cruises through the area in the back of a car, the viewer sees Baton Rouge as he would view it: huddles of decrepit buildings, enormous steel chimneys of chemical plants, and inhabitants who look like extras from the film ‘Deliverance’. The environmental and moral decay of the area poisons the inhabitants, mired as they are in poverty, violence, ignorance, and hopelessness.
The Chameleon is the nomenclature given to Fortin, a French national, who has assumed the identity of others since he was a child as a means of survival, offering a classic explanation of kidnapping, rape and torture. The closing credits claim that he had assumed 140 different personas by the time of the making of the film. In this instance, he assumes the identity of Nicholas Mark Randall, a local boy, violent and rebellious, who went missing in 2000. He disappeared en route to Juvenile Court and was presumed a runaway, mourned by no-one. Ironically, Fortin knows none of this when he chooses a smiling, fresh-faced American youngster to impersonate.
Randall’s family is completely dysfunctional. His mother, Kimberley Miller (Barkin) had three children by different fathers and confesses to being a poor role model: it is hard to recognise the glamorous Barkin in this wizened, stooped, inarticulate woman who specialises in sentence fragments. His half-sister, Kathy Jansen (de Ravin) is married, works in a beauty salon, with a working-class husband who is relatively supportive and patient with the family antics. His half-brother, Brendan (Stahl), represents the worst of the environment: poorly educated, violent and aggressive, and a drug addict to boot.
Painting a picture of the family dynamics might provide a strong reason for disliking this film. However, the emphasis of the storyline rests upon the coping mechanisms of The Chameleon and of an FBI agent who cannily pursues truth, convinced as she is that The Chameleon is not Nicholas Randall.
The Chameleon works hard to be acceptable to the family but is sufficiently intuitive to realise that each member understands fully well that he is not Nicholas but that they want him to be.
While Frederic makes desperate efforts to be accepted and to fit into this decaying environment, FBI agent Jennifer Johnson relentlessly pursues all evidence, continually interfering with the family to ‘turn’ one or the other of them into revealing the truth.
Flashbacks are used but not intrusively. We see fragments of Frederic’s life in France prior to being claimed by Kimberley Miller and her family.
So how is this film uplifting? The Chameleon undoubtedly behaves badly at points in the film, to the extent that the sister claims to be afraid of him. Eventually he moves from his sister’s home to live with the mother and it is at this point that he breaks through her emotional frigidity to establish a real bond, a bond which she does not have with either of the other children. Without divulging any more of the plotline, which should remain a surprise, these miserable characters – The Chameleon, Kimberley Miller, and Kathy Jansen – do display surprising integrity in moments of crisis. In a bankrupt environment like Baton Rouge, where life is perforce barbaric and violent, these characters are forced by circumstance to reveal genuine human feelings and the ability to sacrifice self-interest for the benefit of someone else. The FBI agent, although driven professionally to discover truth, does not put career advancement ahead of human interest, either. It is made perfectly clear that she does have a sincere commitment to the welfare of Frederic Fortin; her objective is not merely to expose his impersonation.
Much of Fortin’s early life is still a mystery – and so is the disappearance of Nicholas Randall, although the film strongly implies a solution. Fortin, we are told is now married, with two children, and living in the West of France. Impersonation is a way of life for him so he is unlikely to be found in the telephone book under that name. The film demonstrates that mothers can inflict tragic cruelty upon their children; I found it uplifting that Fortin could rise above his personal circumstances to help a family similarly trapped because he understood. In a flashback he stands outside his mother’s house in France and telephones her, pretending to be a policeman reporting the death of her son. He watches as she impassively puts down the telephone without comment and uses the TV remote to increase the volume.
“Love: that’s all I wanted,” he tells the FBI agent cryptically.