The Color of the Chameleon

The Color of the Chameleon

The Color of the Chameleon (Director: Emil Christov): Based on the novel Zincograph by noted Bulgarian aca­demic and nov­el­ist Vladislav Todorov, this spy thriller pas­tiche is the sort of go-for-broke film­mak­ing that seems increas­ingly rare in risk-averse Hollywood these days. Jam-packed with lit­er­ary, cine­matic and polit­ical jokes and allu­sions, The Color of the Chameleon will def­in­itely not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it an exhil­ar­at­ing and wild ride that by the end takes just a few too many twists.

Batko Stamenov (played by the very cha­ris­matic Ruscen Vidinliev, who is a pop singer in Bulgaria) seems born into a world of secrets and lies. On her deathbed, the aunt who adop­ted him after his par­ents’ death con­fesses that she’s actu­ally his mother, but later on a doc­tor informs him that she died a vir­gin. Recruited to work for the secret police in Communist Bulgaria, Batko seems to have found his call­ing. He’s assigned to spy on a group of intel­lec­tu­als called the Club for New Thinking who are study­ing a novel called Zincograph. The novel is about a man who works as an engraver of zinc plates by day and who spends his even­ings cre­at­ing a fic­tional web of sub­vers­ives to deceive the secret police. You might be able to see where this is going.

Batko takes a job at Royal Zincography and begins spy­ing and send­ing his reports. But after a slip-up caused by his land­lady, he is fired from his spy­ing job. Without miss­ing a beat, he uses his inside know­ledge of the intel­li­gence busi­ness to set up his own fake depart­ment and con­tin­ues his assign­ment. When com­mun­ism falls in 1989 and many of his tar­gets rise to pos­i­tions of power in the new “demo­cratic” Bulgaria, he uses his archive to black­mail them. And when his former spy­mas­ters dis­cover his game, he out­wits them to take his revenge.

The Color of the Chameleon is at its best when explor­ing the Kafkaesque envir­on­ment of the Communist regime and the film glee­fully pokes fun at just about every­one. It’s clear that nobody has clean hands when the old sys­tem crumbles, and Batko’s self-inter­ested spy seems no worse than any­one else, just smarter. The film seems to move from the 50s to the present, when in fact it cov­ers only the tumul­tu­ous years from 1989 through 1992 or so. It’s a credit to the art dir­ec­tion that Communist Bulgaria in the 1980s could look so grim, but it actu­ally means that the post-Communist scenes are less suc­cess­ful for me. It’s a too-sud­den jolt into a more stand­ard Hollywood spy thriller and it lacks the nov­elty of the rest of the film.

One excep­tion is the mont­age where Batko meets with each of his tar­gets in the new Bulgaria, inform­ing each that he rep­res­ents a for­eign spy agency. To one, he’s the KGB’s man in Sofia, to another he is CIA, and to a third he’s with MI6. Brilliantly staged (includ­ing a bowler hat, umbrel­las, and typ­ic­ally English rain in the MI6 sequence), these show Batko’s true nature. He’s not a com­mun­ist or even really a cap­it­al­ist (though he stands to profit from his inform­a­tion). Instead Batko is that old­est of all char­ac­ter types, the trick­ster.

The one sub­plot that fails to really work is the romantic one. While work­ing at Royal Zincography, Batko meets a beau­ti­ful young woman who works as a pro­jec­tion­ist at the local film archive. She shows him Western films includ­ing Casablanca, which based on a small sub­plot, she con­siders a story about Bulgarians escap­ing to America. It’s a great way to include some cine­matic ref­er­ences, but the romance never feels real (maybe it isn’t?) and the final scenes in black and white aboard a lux­ury ocean liner seem ima­gined. In a film as full of ima­gin­a­tion and decep­tion as The Color of the Chameleon, it’s quite pos­sible that they are.

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