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Movie Review: ‘The Chameleon’

July 11, 2011

The Chameleon (Le caméléon) is a fictionalized account of the bizarre true story of Frédéric Bourdin, an imposter who passed himself off as a missing teenager from Louisiana. Journalist Christophe D’Antonio chronicled the exploits of Bourdin in a 2007 book. Bourdin is reputed to have assumed multiple identities over a series of years, but this particular tale concerns the case that ultimately led to his arrest.

A poor family from the Bayou is astonished when a young man in France claims he is their missing son Nicholas (Marc-André Grondin), who disappeared when he was thirteen years old. Nicholas returns home reclusive and withdrawn, no doubt a result of being kidnapped, raped and traumatized. However, his family’s response to his return is puzzling, to say the least. Drug addled mom Beverly (played by Ellen Barkin) seems resentful, his half-brother (Nick Stahl) is downright hateful, while sister Carey (Emily De Ravin) welcomes him with open arms. There are lots of indications that Nicholas might not be who he says he is. He can’t recall family details, he doesn’t recognize a box of his memorabilia, and he looks much older than his purported age of sixteen. Plus, there is that heavy French accent.

Why is the family so quick to accept the man as their own?  When FBI agent Jennifer Johnson (Famke Janssen) comes sniffing around, they steadfastly refuse to give any indication that Nicholas might not be who he says he is. As Johnson and her partner continue to investigate the situation, deep buried secrets are brought to the surface, and the ties that bind a family together take on a whole new, ominous meaning.

From a true-crime perspective, it’s an intriguing story, but I didn’t feel that it was executed very well in the movie. I had a slew of questions that were never addressed, and I would have liked to see more about the psychology behind Bourdin’s motives. Ultimately I found the film unsatisfying. Director Jean-Paul Salome (who also served as co-screenwriter) seems to have had a hard time deciding on what aspects of the story to emphasize. It almost seems that there was too much material to fit into the ninety-minute running time. The result is an erratically paced film.

I felt that Marc-André Grondin was badly miscast as Bourdin, primarily because he is not remotely passable as a sixteen year old. Without that crucial plausibility, I just couldn’t buy into the entire family/town/community accepting that Bourdin was Nicholas, and the thus the story falls apart. I also found the actions (more specifically, the lack thereof) on the part of the FBI maddening.  An obvious solution to the puzzle takes an agonizing time to come to fruition. De Ravin and Janssen are fine in the film, but I was on the fence with Barkin. Normally I’m a huge fan, and physically her transformation to a haunted looking heroin addict is admirable, but she carries the same dour expression in every single scene. There’s never a hint of life under her stony demeanor.

Overall, I would recommend The Chameleon for the staunch true-crime enthusiast, but you might want to wait for the rental. The Chameleon is now showing in limited release.

Rating: 2.5/5




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