A Fine Demonstration of Masterful Skills or a Chameleon Movie
by Penka Monova
Even kids know that the chameleon is colorless. It borrows each tint from its surroundings to hide from enemies and to prey, equally important functions. In The Color of the Chameleon (Zincograph), the chameleon’s color is the air above the city, where people are followed and arrested because of the novels they write. Still, books are published, burnt, read aloud in bed and worst of all — trusted! The movie could be defined by any genre — black comedy, political psycho thriller and whatever else you can think of. I’d treat it as a dark romance. But no matter how we define it, it slips away, evoking different analogies from those we try to formulate.
It’s a clever movie, to the point of speculation. That’s because it pretends to be several other films in order to move the audience. Then, it backs out to intrigue us on a different level. Therefore, the viewer (or critic) can interpret it through a similar pose of mimicry — waiting, pretending, reincarnating, to catch the transfigurations of the authors and their characters. The Color of the Chameleon is thought out with a view to knocking down both its own sand towers and those built by others. The spectator feels that he is on shifting sands, which reveal something else beneath. But you don’t have time to see it, because the authors drag you somewhere else and they’re in a hurry.
The Color of the Chameleon begins as most Hollywood movies end. An orphaned young man is taken by his aunt to a pedagogical institute with a complaint: inveterate onanism. The biblical punishment is death, but according to the clerk, sitting next to the portrait of the communist chief Georgi Dimitrov holding a girl in his lap (a future filmmaker incidentally), this is not a crime. It’s just that the point of interest needs to change. From then on, the main character, Batko Stamenov, is forced into a melodramatic plot; His aunt, who raised him after the tragic death of his parents, struggles to be a mother figure. Bit by bit, it turns out she didn’t raise him, but whatever the truth, the character strongly opposes being dragged into this sentimental scenario.
Destiny serves him an even colder dish, but also one which better suits his taste. He’s prepared for it thanks to the spy stories in the “Space” magazine he enjoys during the lonesome nights. To put it boldly, he’s recruited by the Bulgarian Intelligence Service. I can relate the plot without compunction, because I know everyone will find their own movie in the multiple story threads. But the author aims to tie together all possible interpretations, regardless of our various paths and mind-sets. In The Color of the Chameleon, the Bulgarian Intelligence Service is raised to a higher metaphorical rank — a sort of rational, cynical order, Abranch and social project, built 50 years hence. It’s a metaphor of someone who looks after us and keeps an eye on us. A sort of God — all-powerful, cruel, raw, sometimes even careful. The character dives into the web of this secret agency without guilt. And when he’s banned for being overzealous (“In here there’s no “me” — says his commanding officer — “There’s “us” and there’s “them”!”), he uses the tried and true method to form his own department. The idea’s not originally his— it can be found in the black-listed novel “Zincographer”, a book which Batko comments on. He’s the only one with the courage and imagination to put into practice the plot, since no-one else has read the work. It’s a game, where morale and feelings do not count. What prevails is the pleasure in playing practical jokes. It is like a dirty and violent book, full of despicable jokes, which you read shamelessly. Batko’s job in the Royal Zincography motivates him even more — he prints other people’s messages, but he can also twist and improve them. The story delivers with humor. Irony, grotesque, biting remarks and absurdity are implied in every frame, image or scene. Even the most inferior things are polished with humor.
And that’s when Iovka shows up. This gentle creature is some kind of female double of the main character, his unrevised edition. The girl with the eyes of a doe is an offspring of “Madame Bovary”. Mostly, howevern a product of old Hollywood films. She works as a projectionist, which is fateful for her. This pure and shy creature is the only one Batko is willing to protect. She’s not an adherent of trough gymnastic sex, because she’s a slave to old film models, where the final kiss celebrates the happy ending or orgasm. Which is just what happens in The Color of the Chameleon we bear in mind the kiss only.
The irony is that this absent-minded girl accuses her beloved of bookishness and falsity. At the same time, her wish is to run away with him to America, like the couple from in Casablanca, because “The devil has seized people by the throat” in their country.
The ridiculous thing about the character in The Color of the Chameleon is that he already does wonders racketeering and blackmailing with self-created secret files. He overthrows ministers and shakes epaulettes, with the sole purpose of earning enough to fulfill the dream of the projectionist girl.
So the road to happiness for the enamoured onanist, Batko Simeonov sets the political life of Bulgaria in motion in a funny and cathartic way. Secret services and operatives fuss, ministers are irritated, authorities sink, as well as bodies, struck by bullets. There’s also a laugh to be had — certain frames are spread with the one-off striptease of the present head of parliament.
At the end of film, Batko will balance on the prow of the ship to America exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. The big manipulator is outplayed by two of the most sugary Hollywood movies and a woman, who loves watching them. This can be considered a curtsy to the greatest film-illusions of human kind, but also as a bitter mockery of the awful harm they do. Or a human sacrifice at the altar of love.
It’s a strange mixture, probably Bulgarian. It stems from the situations — absurd, ironic, but somehow worldly. The humor is not situational only — it’s in the dialogue, in the thought patterns of the characters, in the narrative style. You feel it’s true to life itself. You can also get a whiff of that universal irony, subtle and wise, which can be found in Thomas Mann. As if we are exposed to a veiled supernatural order, The Color of the Chameleon rises above movies, books, magazines or even the spying net that tries to envelop our lives . And it’s neither the Bulgarian Intelligence Service, nor KGB or any other successful secret service. Without trying to moralize, The Color of the Chameleon picks an antihero for a protagonist. He might be smarter than those around, but the movie effectively makes a fool out of him and out of the audience.
It’s not the first thesis of this sort in films. In Dzift, based on a novel by the same author and screenwriter Vladislav Todorov, human life proved to be a huge misconception. In The Color of the Chameleon it’s already a futile joke.
The movie sets up its own world and atmosphere. It’s possible because of the notorious manner of Emil Hristow as a cinematographer — he often gives prominence to his style over the directors. He has always aestheticized ugliness, but now as he directs, this approach feels appropriate.
On the screen various people on edge wander, outwit and tease each other with their pettiest flaws. All characters are arranged in either elaborate or sparse spaces – dim corridors, glass mazes and underground premises, where liquids stream down, fumes arise, andan explosive alchemy occurs between people, objects and spaces. It all feels cozy and Bulgarian with its tapestry, radios, mats and other banal details, but it is also drawn by a madman. For that reason, the fragments from black and white movies fit in, and appear as enlightenments of the characters or stage directions from the hidden narrator. They ridicule and decompose the whole film.
The film deals with the trope of dossiers, operatives, manipulations and irony of the system that destroys the man. In spite of that, analogies are inevitable with movies about Intelligence, secret services and their methods. I believe that without Parched (Izpepelyavane, 2004, dir. Stanimir Trofonov) and Voice Over (Zad kadar, 2010, dir. Svetoslav Ovtcharov) the achievement mentioned above would be downright inappropriate. Both Bulgarian films are worthy efforts, within the range of the melodramatic genre, to warm up the subject. The Color of the Chameleon uses the same ground for conversation, but with different views.
The idea of a man who runs his own parallel secret service structure, is developed in Oh, My Lord, Where Art Thee? (O, Gospodi, kade si?, 1991) by Krasimir Spassov, based on a short story by Luben Petkov. There, the character of Stefan Mavrodiev organizes a fictitious group to establish law and order. But this film mutates from comedy to complete tragedy, while The Color of the Chameleon retains a constant tone from beginning to end. This is both good and bad. In a certain sense, despite the noticeable intrigue, there is neither closure nor catharsis. But even the much talked about German movie The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen, 2006), which won an Oscar and shocked many viewers, seems childish, compared to the way The Color of the Chameleon deals with latter-day manipulations.
The movie has some of the aura of Zift (2008), also based on a novel by Vladislav Todorov. There the dark colors were wrapped in the cellophane of overlapping irony and evil jokes. But I wouldn’t emphasize Dzift anymore, although there you can also see virtuosity in using words aggressively. This spiteful exchange of insults camouflages the search if meaning, love and proper place.
The Color of the Chameleon as a Bulgarian film reminds me of The Hare Census (Prebroyavane na divite zaytzi, 1973), because of the misanthropic humor and the knowledge of human vices. Which makes the main character, a counting clerk, play with people and hit them on their biggest complexes and fears. In this classic Bulgarian movie there was a similar comical atmosphere, where laughing is hard, since you feel you’re the target of the jokes.
But the film by Georgi Mishev and Eduard Sachariev still feels very domestic. While in The Color of the Chameleon we are shown a masterful usage of cultural solidities, corresponding with a common world property of themes, patterns, values, utopias and anti-utopias. And it also dares to bare an exceptional inhumanness, a leveling of all our knowledge, accumulated as if in vain.
Facts Around the Film
Actually The Color of the Chameleon is the debut as a director of the cinematographer Emil Hristow, who already left a mark on the Bulgarian film industry. His movies are prone to visual extremes, but with the stamp of a noteworthy artistry. And with this debut he already won the first prize Golden Rose at the 31 Bulgarian Feature Film Festival. In Bulgarian film there’s only a few cinematographers who became directors — Vulo Radev, Borislav Punchev, Radoslav Spassov, Hristo Kovachev in documentaries. But even Vulo Radev with his first movie The Peach Thief (Kradetzat na praskovi, 1964) couldn’t win first prize at the national festival and he took only the special prize of the jury, best actress award for Nevena Kokanova and best actor award for Rade Markovich (Varna, 1964). He wins Golden Rose on his second attempt withTsar and General (Tsar i general, 1966). The strong points of The Color of the Chameleon are the visual execution and the great cast. For the first time you can hear Bulgarian speech on screen, pronounced in with natural voice, even when saying something aphoristic. Most of the well-known actors are unrecognizable (Rousi Chanev, Deyan Donkov), and the less familiar ones, such as Ruscen Vidinliev (we now have a singer, making a debut in films in a leading role and with a Golden Rose) and Irina Miliankova (known from a TV series) will be well remembered.
Ruscen Vidinliev shows his character through the expression in his eyes. His face is a sheer Buster Keaton — expressionless, but hinting that someone inside is doubling up with laughter. Altogether, The Color of the Chameleon is a spectacle of high level, which has yet to find its audience in Bulgaria and abroad. For many people it won’t be their type of film. It lacks that begging for sympathy which more and more movies have, conforming to the viewers and to their presumed dullness and impotence. This movie tale is rather created to destroy vicious illusions and to bring us partial sobriety.
In spite of that, a certain mannerism is also present – both in the novel and in the movie. I’m afraid The Color of the Chameleon is mainly a fine demonstration of power, knowledge, masterful skills and potential. But it somehow doesn’t allow you to like it and prefers to strike you with awe.
Just like Intelligence services.
Edited by Eithne O’Neill
© FIPRESCI 2013