Toward the beginning of Emil Christov's The Color of the Chameleon, Batko Stamenov, a young Bulgarian boy, is being scolded for masturbating or, as a disciplinarian refers to it, "onanism." It may be the defining scene of the film, a gleeful knock at the solipsistic nature of the narrative, undercut with a careful acceptance of that nature. As the film unrolls its spy-game pastiche, casting a collegiate Batko (Ruscen Vidinliev) as a recruited spy for President Mladanov's Secret Police under a suspicious senior agent, the constant sense that all the characters are at once playing up and playing against their stereotypes amplifies the film's constant self-analytical undercurrent, but also limits its satirical and metaphysical power.
Unfolding largely during the last year or so of Bulgaria's communist state, the film wears its movie love on its face, as Batko partially romanticizes his role as an informant through the movies his girlfriend, Suzi (Irena Miliankova), shows him; the film pays special attention to the small roles of the two Bulgarians who seek Rick's help early on in Casablanca. Batko's main assignment is to turn a group of intellectuals into informants, following their embracement of the controversial novel Zincograph, which shares its name with socialist noirist Vadislav Todorov's novel that serves as the film's source material.
The Color of the Chameleon's mounting pseudo-intertextual meaning, however, becomes more and more elusive as the story progresses, and eventually this initially fascinating film adopts a mildly sadistic sense of withholding. The use of metaphors and symbols (Dmitri Vrubel's iconoclastic painting of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker's smooch is ubiquitous) begins to feel programmatic and overtly pronounced, at least partially because the espionage remains rigid as the ambition of the filmmaking advances. Fired by a senior agent, Batko seamlessly turns his investigation into a convoluted blackmailing plot that rolls out two years after communism falls, when one of his informants, Chamov (Samual Finzi), is about to run for office. All the while, Christov employs a devilishly seductive aesthetic, stuck somewhere between György Pálfi and Thom Andersen, particularly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, to embellish a rote sense of grotesque cynicism in reaction to governmental corruption and idiocy.
Much more interesting is the narrative's macabre satirical suggestion that even dedicated leftist artists and intellectuals can easily be seduced by the intrigue of governmental spy work, out of some repressed wanting to be part of the club. The film's central subject is storytelling and its now-indistinct comparison to the truth, perhaps even the evaporation of the latter, and Christov shrewdly acknowledges and conveys the self-reflexive weight of such ideas on a filmmaker. His ambitions to investigate the viscous nature of storytelling, however, are half-measured, as the film never truly unburdens itself from its own vague yet methodical narrative.
The result is an enjoyably self-aware black comedy tinged with all manner of Cold War bric-a-brac and sexualized symbolism, but hampered by its dependency on, rather than its admiration of, its period details and myriad cinematic and literary influences. Does Christov see parts of himself in the clever yet deeply damaged Batko? Even if so, his personal stakes in the story are never quite as loud as his distrust of all things bureaucratic and governmental. In other words, the filmmakers are too busy being sarcastic to ever actually be beholden to the film's trippy conceptions and political paranoia they intermittently engage with in the film. More cagey than genuinely chaotic, The Color of the Chameleon is nevertheless satisfying on a number of levels, just not nearly to the degree of self-satisfaction enjoyed by those who produced it.